Thousands flee Iraq's Kirkuk: AFP journalist

Oct 17, 2017, 00:15
Thousands flee Iraq's Kirkuk: AFP journalist

On Monday, Iraqi forces, backed by Shia militias, said they had taken control of the city's global airport, an oil field, the strategic K1 military base and the Taza Khormatu district in the south-east of the city, leading to reports of hundreds of armed Kurdish residents to take up positions inside the city in anticipation of an attack.

The Iraqi government and the KRG have been at loggerheads since a September 25 Kurdish independence referendum, rejected as illegal by Baghdad.

Washington called for calm on both sides, seeking to avert an all-out conflict between Baghdad and the Kurds that would open a whole new front in Iraq's 14-year civil war and potentially draw in regional powers such as Turkey and Iran.

Baghdad has accused fighters who are not Iraqi Kurds - including Turkey's outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party - of being inside Kirkuk, as part of the Kurdish standoff with Iraq over the status of the region.

"We call upon all citizens to co-operate with our heroic armed forces, which are committed to our strict directives to protect civilians in the first place, and to impose security and order, and to protect state installations and institutions", he added.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces took control of much of the province in 2014, when Islamic State (IS) militants swept across northern Iraq and the Iraq army collapsed. "IS remains the true enemy of Iraq, and we urge all parties to remain focused on finishing the liberation of their country from this menace". "We are aware of reports of a limited exchange of fire during the predawn hours [today], and we believe this to have been an isolated incident", he said of media reports of fighting between Iraqi and Kurdish fighters.

The ethnically and religiously diverse city has always been a flashpoint between the central government in Baghdad and the northern Kurdish region. Kurdish peshmerga troops who are defending the area are also US -armed and trained.

A resident inside Kirkuk said members of the ethnic Turkmen community in the city of 1-million people were celebrating, driving in convoys with Iraqi flags and firing shots in the air.

"We also had to flee Kirkuk back in 1991, like today", she said, referring to a Kurdish uprising that was put down by forces of late dictator Saddam Hussein and when tens of thousands of Kurds were deported from the region. Terrified families piled into cars and fled, clogging the highway to the city of Sulaimaniyah in Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region.

On Sunday, Tehran denied a claim from a Kurdish official that Iran had followed through on threats to close its border with Iraqi Kurdistan.

The Kurdish secession bid was strongly opposed by neighbours Iran and Turkey.

The PUK had supported a UN-backed plan for negotiations with Baghdad in exchange for dropping the referendum. Washington, allied with the Kurds for decades, pleaded vainly for them to halt a vote that could break up Iraq. "We remain focused on destroying ISIS", he said.

The status of Kirkuk and fate of the Kurds were left unsettled 14 years ago when a US -led invasion toppled Saddam.

Pro-PUK forces were deployed south of the city, including at oil fields, while fighters loyal to the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), linked to Iraqi Kurd leader Massud Barzani who initiated the referendum, were deployed to the north.

During the years of U.S. occupation that followed, Washington leaned on its Kurdish allies to keep their ambitions in check to avoid triggering another war amid an insurgency by Sunni Arabs.

Their leader Barzani said the time had come for an independence referendum. And while Iraq's oil revenues are supposed to be shared, disputes among the provinces have often held up transfers, leading parties to find leverage in holding the fields.

The crisis is raising fears of fresh chaos in Iraq just as the country's forces are on the verge of routing the Islamic State group from the last territory it controls in the country.