Kurds, Iraqi forces in stand-off in Kirkuk

Haider Al-Abadi

The presidents of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan have also held talks to defuse an escalating crisis in Kirkuk.

The KRG and the Shia-led central government in Baghdad have been at odds since the Kurdish independence referendum was held last month in northern Iraq.

Kirkuk, a city of more than a million people, is outside the KRG territory, but Peshmerga forces have been stationed in the city since 2014, when Iraqi security forces suffered setbacks against IS attacks.

Kurdish authorities said they were sending thousands of their Peshmerga forces toward the city, while the Iraqi Army's 9th Armored Division claimed its own forces were sweeping into positions that the Kurds were abandoning.

But speaking to The New Arab on condition of anonymity, he said Iraqi forces had seized several former Peshmerga positions without a fight, after the Kurdish forces withdrew "voluntarily" towards Kirkuk's city limits. The General Command of Peshmerga Forces released a statement saying the situation "has risky indications for war".

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Earlier, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said he would never use military force against Iraqi Kurdistan; The goal is, he said, to free the country from the refugee extremists in the north of the country.

But the KRG's Security Council expressed alarm late on Thursday at what it said was a significant Iraqi military build-up south of Kirkuk "including tanks, artillery, Humvees and mortars", according to Reuters.

Kurdish commanders said they had rejected an early morning deadline set for October 15 by Baghdad for Peshmerga fighters to relinquish positions they had taken during the fight against Islamic State (IS) extremists. Ever since, Kirkuk has become a point of contention between Baghdad and Kurdish officials in Erbil.

The Iraqi and Kurdish sides have exchanged angry words since Kurds on September 25 voted overwhelmingly for independence in a referendum that Baghdad refused to acknowledge. However, Iraq's military command rushed to issue a statement denying media reports it had commenced operations to retake the city from Kurdish Peshmerga forces who have controlled it for the past three years.

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