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Iraq, Kurds in crisis talks over Kirkuk standoff
By Shwan Mohammad with Sarah Benhaida in Baghdad
Sulaimaniyah, Iraq (AFP) Oct 15, 2017

Baghdad gives ultimatum on Kirkuk pullback: Kurds
Sulaimaniyah, Iraq (AFP) Oct 14, 2017 - Baghdad has set a pre-dawn Sunday deadline for Kurdish forces to abandon positions in the disputed oil province of Kirkuk they took during the fightback against the Islamic State group, a senior Kurdish official said.

The reported ultimatum comes as thousands of Iraqi troops and allied militia are locked in an armed standoff with Kurdish peshmerga fighters near ethnically divided but historically Kurdish-majority Kirkuk.

Tensions have soared between the erstwhile allies in the war against IS since a Kurdish vote for independence last month, drawing urgent appeals for calm from the US-led coalition supporting the campaign.

"The deadline set for the peshmerga to return to their pre-June 6, 2014 positions will expire during the night," the Kurdish official told AFP, asking not to be identified.

Asked at what time, he said 2 am on Sunday (2300 GMT Saturday).

The official's comments came as Iraqi President Fuad Masum, who is himself a Kurd, was holding urgent talks with Kurdish leaders in the city of Sulaimaniyah in the south of the autonomous Kurdish region.

No statements have emerged from the meetings.

On Friday, Iraqi troops took over formerly Kurdish-held positions in the south of Kirkuk province, including in the mainly Shiite Turkmen town of Taza Khurmatu.

In June 2014, IS fighters swept through vast areas north and west of Baghdad, prompting many Iraqi army units to disintegrate and Kurdish forces to step in.

They did so primarily in historically Kurdish-majority areas they had long sought to incorporate in their three-province autonomous region in the north against the strong opposition of Baghdad.

The Kurds currently control the city of Kirkuk and three major oil fields in the province which account for a significant share of the regional government's oil revenues.

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday that Washington was working to reduce tensions between Iraqi federal and Kurdish forces, urging them to remain focused on the war against jihadists.

"We are trying to tone everything down and to figure out how we go forward without losing sight of the enemy, and at the same time recognising that we have got to find a way to move forward," he told reporters.

"Everybody stay focused on defeating ISIS. We can't turn on each other right now. We don't want to go to a shooting situation," he added, using an alternative acronym for IS.

The presidents of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan held talks Sunday to defuse an escalating crisis, after a deadline for Kurdish forces to withdraw from disputed positions was extended by 24 hours.

Thousands of Iraqi troops are locked in an armed standoff with Kurdish peshmerga fighters in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, amid spiralling tensions following last month's vote by the Iraqi Kurds for independence.

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.

Kurdish forces, who were key allies in the US-backed offensive against IS, are refusing to surrender positions they took during the fightback against the jihadists over the past three years.

Iraq's central authorities had demanded the Kurds withdraw from disputed areas overnight but the deadline was extended by a day following talks.

Iraqi President Fuad Masum, himself a Kurd, was meeting Sunday with Iraqi Kurd leader Massud Barzani in Dukan in Sulaimaniyah province, officials said.

The peshmerga forces based in Kirkuk are mainly loyal to Masum's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of party, a rival of Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Representatives of both parties were taking part in the talks.

The Iraqi president was to submit a plan based on "dialogue and negotiation to avoid conflict and violence," Abdallah Aliwai, an adviser to Masum at the talks, told AFP, refusing to give more details.

Iraqi and peshmerga forces could be seen early on Sunday still facing off in positions on the outskirts of Kirkuk, though there were no signs of troop movements.

- Armed civilians in Kirkuk -

As well as heavily armed federal troops, members of the Hashed al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation forces, which are dominated by Iran-backed Shiite militias, have massed around Kirkuk.

Armed Kurdish civilians were seen gathering in Kirkuk overnight and Kirkuk governor Najm Eddine Karim, a Kurd sacked by Baghdad but who refuses to quit his post, warned: "Residents will help the peshmerga... we will not allow any force to enter our city."

Kirkuk, long claimed by the Kurds as part of their historic territory, has emerged as the main flashpoint in the dispute.

Polling during the September 25 referendum was held not only in the three provinces of the autonomous Kurdish region but also in adjacent Kurdish-held areas, including Kirkuk, that are claimed by both Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan.

The referendum, which was non-binding and saw voters overwhelmingly back independence, was declared illegal by Baghdad and held despite international opposition.

The Kurds control the city of Kirkuk and three major oil fields in the province.

The three fields produce some 250,000 barrels per day, accounting for 40 percent of Iraqi Kurdistan's oil exports.

They would provide crucial revenue to Baghdad, which has been left cash-strapped from the global fall in oil prices and three years of battle against IS.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said this week that he was "not going... to make war on our Kurdish citizens" but has also rejected any negotiations until the independence vote is annulled.

- US urges calm -

Abadi's spokesman Saad al-Hadithi told AFP that Iraqi government forces "do not want to... harm citizens, be they Kurdish or otherwise, but they must enforce the constitution," which gives Baghdad control in the disputed areas and over exports.

Washington has military advisers deployed with both sides in the standoff and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday the United States was working to reduce tensions.

"We are trying to tone everything down and to figure out how we go forward without losing sight of the enemy," Mattis told reporters.

"Everybody stay focused on defeating ISIS. We can't turn on each other right now," he said, using an alternative acronym for IS.

After ousting the jihadists from their last urban areas including Mosul and Hawija in recent months, Iraqi forces are battling to push IS from its last positions along the border with Syria.

Tensions have also risen between the Kurds and Ankara and Tehran since the independence vote, which both countries fear will stoke the separatist ambitions of their own sizeable Kurdish minorities.

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

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghassemi said "no new decision" had been made and that "the land border is open with Iraqi Kurdistan".

A Kurdish customs official, Shakhwan Abu Bakr, earlier told AFP that the border had been closed to all people and goods at the three crossings into Iran.

Disputed territory at heart of Iraq-Kurd crisis
Baghdad (AFP) Oct 15, 2017 - The crisis between Iraq's central government and the autonomous Kurdish region is rooted in a long-standing dispute over territory stretching from the Syrian border to the frontier with Iran.

The territory, located south of the provinces of Arbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk, is more than 1,000 kilometres long (620 miles) and covers 37,000 square kilometres (14,000 sq miles).

The three provinces in the rugged, mountainous north of Iraq form the Kurdish region which has been autonomous since 1991.

The disputed territory also includes parts of Salaheddin, Nineveh and Diyala provinces, and the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, the latter being the main bone of contention between Baghdad and the Kurds.

Iraqi Kurdistan, as recognised by Baghdad, is home to 5.5 million people and covers 75,000 square kilometres.

It became autonomous after the 1991 Gulf War over Kuwait, as Western powers intervened to protect the Kurds against an onslaught by the forces of dictator Saddam Hussein.

The region gained formal autonomy in 2005 under a constitution which set up a federal republic in Iraq.

For the Kurds, the autonomous region enshrined in the constitution falls short of their historical claims to a larger region also including Kirkuk and its oil fields.

Kurdish peshmerga forces have been in sole control of a chunk of Kirkuk province since federal forces withdrew when faced with an offensive by the Islamic State group in 2014.

They also moved into other disputed areas.

In stages, the peshmerga took control of 23,000 square kilometres across Kirkuk, Nineveh, Salaheddin and Diyala provinces.

They also hold the Makhmur region, which the Kurds claim as part of Arbil province although Iraqi authorities in the 1990s placed it under the jurisdiction of Nineveh.

Kurdish forces, key allies in the US-backed offensive against IS, are now refusing to surrender positions they took during the fightback against the jihadists.

Ties between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan have been strained since the Kurds held a September 25 independence vote, including in Kirkuk, in defiance of the central government.

Iraq ratchets up pressure on Kurds after independence vote
Baghdad (AFP) Oct 9, 2017
Iraq's central government on Monday unleashed a legal barrage against Kurdish officials and sought to seize key businesses in a fresh bid to tighten the screws over a disputed independence referendum. The latest moves come exactly two weeks after an overwhelming majority of voters in Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region backed independence in a non-binding ballot slammed as illegal by Baghdad ... read more

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