Thousands of Iraqi troops and Kurdish peshmerga fighters were locked in a standoff in Kirkuk province, as the Baghdad-imposed deadline for Kurds to leave military positions in the disputed oil-rich region expired.
The Kurdish forces were given a deadline of 2 a.m. local time Sunday (2300 GMT Saturday) to surrender their positions and return to their pre-June 2014 positions.
At the scene, a photographer with the Agence France-Presse reported seeing armored vehicles bearing the Iraqi national flag on the banks of a river on the southern outskirts of the city of Kirkuk.
“Our forces are not moving and are now waiting for orders from the general staff,” an Iraqi army officer told AFP.
Facing the Iraqi forces on the opposite bank of the river were Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
On Friday, Kurdish authorities said they had sent thousands more troops to Kirkuk to confront Iraqi “threats.”
Tensions soar after ‘illegal’ referendum
Tensions between the two allies in the war against the “Islamic State” (IS) have been escalating since a Kurdish independence referendum last month that Baghdad has called “anti-constitutional.”
The Kurds overwhelmingly voted for an independent state in the September 25 referendum.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi demanded that Kurdish leaders annul the referendum vote and called for a dialogue within the framework of the constitution.
After the referendum, the Iraqi parliament asked the prime minister to use armed force to retake control of the oil-rich Kirkuk, claimed by both Iraqi Kurdistan and the Iraqi central government in Baghdad.
The Kurdish peshmerga prevented the province’s oil fields from falling into the hands of IS jihadists in 2014.
The Kurdish regional government included the disputed oil-rich province in the independence referendum, reflecting the Kurds’ historical claim to the area. Baghdad had controlled Kirkuk before IS pushed out the Iraqi army three years ago.
‘No plans for a military operation’
Abadi has repeatedly denied any plans to attack the Kurds, insisting Thursday that he was “not going… to make war on our Kurdish citizens.”
But thousands of heavily armed troops and members of the Popular Mobilization paramilitary force, formed mainly by Iranian-trained Shiite groups, have taken position around Kirkuk.
Kurdish peshmerga fighters also rejected a 2100 GMT deadline from the paramilitary force to withdraw from a strategic junction south of Kirkuk city, Reuters news agency reported, citing a Kurdish security official. The strategic position north of the Maktab Khalid junction controls access to an airbase and some of the oil fields located in the region.
ap/cmk (AFP, Reuters)