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Syria Kurds join forces in standoff with rebels
by Staff Writers
Arbil, Iraq (AFP) Nov 23, 2012

'Significant progress' on Arab-Kurd row: Iraq speaker
Baghdad (AFP) Nov 24, 2012 - Iraq's parliament speaker said Saturday that "significant progress" has been made on resolving an Arab-Kurd crisis, although a deployment of Kurdish forces in the country's north has raised the stakes.

Osama al-Nujaifi has been pushing to resolve a crisis between Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq that he has warned could lead to civil war.

Tensions are running high in areas of northern Iraq that the Kurdish region wants to incorporate over the strong objections of Baghdad. The threat of conflict was illustrated by the reported deployment of a large Kurdish force near the disputed northern city of Kirkuk on Saturday.

However, "significant progress" has been made after the two sides reached agreement on "the time and place to hold meetings," Nujaifi said in a statement.

"A technical and military meeting -- the first in this case -- will be held next Monday in the Iraqi ministry of defence in Baghdad," he said, terming it an "important development on the road to defusing the crisis."

A statement on Kurdistan president Massud Barzani's website meanwhile said he would not attend a meeting with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in the city of Najaf, scuppering an initiative by powerful Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to bring the two together.

The current crisis is not a personal issue but rather "a problem of governance in Iraq, and focuses on a lack of commitment to the permanent constitution" and to agreements concluded by the federal government, the statement said.

A source in the Kurdistan presidency told AFP that a large number of Kurdish security forces, known as peshmerga, deployed on Saturday north of the city of Kirkuk, armed with heavy weapons and armoured vehicles.

The peshmerga have orders from Barzani to attack Iraqi government forces from the Tigris Operations Command if they enter Kirkuk city, he said.

But the command's forces are mainly deployed in areas that have Arab or Turkmen majorities in the south and west of Kirkuk province, making a clash with the Kurdish forces north of the city unlikely.

Nujaifi has been holding talks since Wednesday with political leaders in Baghdad and the Kurdish region to contain the crisis.

The unresolved row over territory poses the biggest threat to Iraq's long-term stability, diplomats and officials say. Ties between the two sides are also marred by disputes over oil and power-sharing.

Two main Kurdish groups have agreed to join forces in a standoff with hundreds of Islamist rebels in northeastern Syria, a Syrian Kurdish representative and an activist said on Friday.

Hundreds of fighters loyal to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) -- which has close ties to Turkey's rebel Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) -- have been locked in fierce battles with fighters of the jihadist Al-Nusra Front and allied Ghuraba al-Sham group in Ras al-Ain on the border with Turkey.

The agreement sets the stage for an expanded conflict in the area between Islamist rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian Kurdish forces.

"We initially agreed on forming these (joint) forces that do not belong to any side, and discussions are ongoing now" in Arbil, the capital of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, Mohammed Rasho, a representative of the People's Council of Western Kurdistan, which is close to the PYD, told AFP.

Talks on the formation of the joint forces between the People's Council of Western Kurdistan and the Kurdish National Council, which comprises a number of Syrian Kurdish parties, began three days ago, Rasho said, adding that they took place under the supervision of the presidency of Iraqi Kurdistan.

An activist who identified himself as Havidar meanwhile said that "the two Kurdish national councils in western Kurdistan (Syria) have agreed in Iraq to create a united military force, bringing together PYD forces and other Kurdish dissidents" in Syria.

"Since the Free Syrian Army forces came to Kurdish areas, especially Ras al-Ain," there was in the beginning "an understanding that they would limit their deployment to Arab areas," said Rasho.

But after some time, rebel forces burned Kurdish flags that had been raised, and "clashes between us and them occurred in Kurdish areas," he said.

Rasho added that rebel groups including the Tawhid Brigade, the main opposition formation in Aleppo, Ghuraba al-Sham and "sometimes" the Al-Nusra Front, "stand against Kurdish citizens."

On July 11, the Kurdish National Council met in Iraq with the People's Council of Western Kurdistan and decided to form the Supreme Kurdish Council.

Friday's agreement was announced a day after the Ghuraba al-Sham called in a video posted on the Internet for Islamist volunteers to flock to Ras al-Ain for a drive on the provincial capital Hasakeh, whose population is majority Kurdish.

"We of the Ghuraba al-Sham battalion call on the (mainstream rebel) Free Syrian Army and the mujahedeen to advance towards Ras al-Ain. Increase our numbers so that we can free the city of Hasakeh," an unidentified rebel commander said in the footage, standing among some 50 fighters.

"And we warn all those who stand in the way of this revolt... especially the PYD and the PKK, and any other armed group, against taking any action that contradicts the path of the revolution," he added.

Syria's Arab-led rebels accuse the PYD of being in cahoots with Assad's regime.

Northern and northeastern Syria are home to the majority of the country's two million Kurds.

In July, the army withdrew from majority Kurdish areas, leaving the ethnic group's militia to fend for the minority's safety.

Although Syria's Kurds are opposed to the Assad regime, most have sought to remain neutral in the armed rebellion seeking to topple him.

Over time, they have been dragged into the fighting, after rebel assaults on majority Kurdish areas in key northern provinces.


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