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October 18, 2017

BAGHDAD (AP) — Kurdish fighters pulled out of disputed areas across northern and eastern Iraq on Tuesday, one day after giving up the vital oil city of Kirkuk — a dramatic redeployment of forces that opened the way for government troops to move into energy-rich and other strategically important territories.

The vastly outnumbered Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, appeared to have bowed to demands from the central government that they hand over areas outside the Kurds’ autonomous region, including territory seized from the Islamic State group in recent years.

The evacuations exposed a Kurdish leadership in turmoil in the wake of last month’s vote for independence as Iraq’s central government shores up its hand for negotiations over resource-sharing with the country’s self-ruling minority.

Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi acknowledged the power shift, saying Iraqi forces took over the disputed areas from the Kurds with barely a shot fired. “I call on our citizens to celebrate this day, because we have been united,” al-Abadi said, calling the independence vote “a thing of the past” as he offered to begin talks with the Kurdish regional government.

The developments followed weeks of political crisis precipitated by the Kurdish leadership’s decision to hold the referendum for independence in territories beyond the boundaries of its autonomous region in northeast Iraq.

The Iraqi government, as well as Turkey and Iran, which border the land-locked Kurdish region, rejected the vote. The U.S. also opposed the vote, saying it was a distraction on the war against IS. If the mood in Baghdad was triumphant, it was acrimonious in the Kurdish capital of Irbil, reflecting the sense among many Kurds that they had been betrayed — and by their own leaders.

“Kirkuk was sold out, everyone ran away,” said Amir Aydn, a 28-year-old Kirkuk resident as he returned to the city after fleeing the day before. A hospital in the nearby Kurdish city of Suleimaniyah said it had received the bodies of 25 peshmerga fighters killed in clashes over Kirkuk. The claim could not be independently verified.

Kurdish President Masoud Barzani said the evacuation of Kirkuk was forced by “certain people in a certain party,” a swipe at his political opponents in the Patriotic Union of Kuridstan, known as the PUK. Barzani heads the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP.

The General Command of the peshmerga, nominally in Barzani’s hands, went even further, accusing PUK officials of “a great and historic treason against Kurdistan.” Their accusations were grounded in reports that peshmerga divisions loyal to the PUK had abandoned their positions as the Iraqi government forces advanced, though the KDP-aligned divisions also withdrew, in Kirkuk and in other parts of the country.

The KDP leadership also condemned the PUK for meeting with Qassem Soleimani, a commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards who advises Iraq’s predominantly Shiite Popular Mobilization Front militias, in the buildup to this week’s territorial withdrawal. The Shiite militias are an integral part of Iraq’s military apparatus but are viewed with considerable distrust by the Kurds, who consider them a symbol of Tehran’s influence in Iraq.

Peshmerga commander Wista Rasoul, who led a PUK-aligned division in Kirkuk, denied fractures in the Kurdish military ranks and said the pullout was a response to the central government’s vastly superior firepower.

Ala Talabani, a leading PUK official, also defended her meeting with Soleimani on Saturday when he came to pay his respects over the death of her uncle, the late Iraqi President Jalal Talabani. She said Soleimani’s counsel was wise and praised Iran’s role in Iraq.

“Soleimani advised us … that Kirkuk should return to the law and the constitution, so let us come to an understanding,” she told the Arabic language TV station al-Hadath. Barzani insisted he would not give up his campaign for independence, though such hopes seem more distant than ever in the dismal fallout from the referendum. Kirkuk was a vital source of oil revenues for the Kurdish regional government.

Vahal Ali, a senior adviser to Barzani, told The Associated Press the peshmerga would have to withdraw to the areas it held in 2014, before it deployed across northern Iraq in the fight against the Islamic State group — territory that accounts for much of the land the central government wants back. The Kurdish leadership has been quick to point out that it secured Kirkuk and its oil bounty against the Islamic State after regular Iraqi forces fled that year.

Analysts saw a return to the opportunism that characterized Kurdish party politics before the independence vote allowed them to paper over their differences, if only briefly. The PUK did not want to appear opposed to Kurdish independence even though it expressed misgivings over the referendum called by Barzani.

Both parties have an eye on Kurdish regional elections slated for November, said Ahmed Rishdi, an adviser to Iraqi Parliament speaker Salim al-Jabouri. “I think the PUK and the KDP distributed roles,” he said “The KDP are the dream makers and the PUK are the peacemakers, so now they are going to divide the Parliament between them,” and squeeze out other minor parties.

But voters may not want to cast their ballots for either party. “Nobody is looking especially good at the moment,” said Fanar Haddad, a senior Middle East research fellow at the National University of Singapore.

If there is a silver lining for the PUK, it is that it may now be in a position to undermine Barzani for calling the ill-fated referendum, he said. And while its coziness with Baghdad and Iran exposes the party to accusations of treason, which ring strongly in Kurdish national politics, the PUK may find itself in a position to attract Iranian or Iraqi largesse.

“If the PUK is able to pay salaries and spread some wealth then their treason just might be put aside” by some, Haddad said.

Szlanko contributed from Kirkuk, Iraq.

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October 17, 2017

KIRKUK, Iraq (AP) — Kurdish forces lost more territory in Iraq on Tuesday, withdrawing from the town of Sinjar a day after Iraqi forces pushed them out of the disputed city of Kirkuk. Meanwhile, thousands of civilians were seen streaming back to Kirkuk, driving along a main highway to the city’s east. The Kurdish forces had built an earthen berm along the highway, reinforced by armored vehicles, but were allowing civilians to return to the city.

Many returnees were seen with their children and belongings packed tight in their cars. The Iraqi forces’ retaking of Kirkuk came only two weeks after they had fought together with the Kurdish fighters to neutralize the Islamic State group in Iraq, their common enemy.

As Kirkuk’s Arab and Turkmen residents on Monday evening celebrated the change of power, thousands of Kurdish residents, fearful of federal and Shiite militia rule, packed the roads north to Irbil, the capital of the northern autonomous Kurdish region.

On Tuesday, they were going back. When Iraq’s armed forces crumbled in the face of an advance by Islamic State group in 2014, Kurdish forces moved into Kirkuk to secure the city and its surrounding oil wells though it was 32 kilometers (20 miles) outside the Kurds’ autonomous region in northeast Iraq.

Baghdad has since insisted Kirkuk and its province be returned to the central government, but matters came to a head when the Kurdish authorities expanded their referendum last month to include Kirkuk. To the Iraqi central government, that looked like Kurdish expansionism.

The city of more than 1 million is home to Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, as well as Christians and Sunni and Shiite Muslims. By midday Monday, federal forces had moved into several major oil fields north of the city, as well as the Kirkuk airport and an important military base, according to Iraqi commanders. Kurdish party headquarters inside Kirkuk had been abandoned.

In the predominantly Yazidi town of Sinjar, Masloum Shingali, commander of the local Yazidi militia, said Kurdish forces had left before dawn on Tuesday, allowing Iraqi Shiite militiamen to move in. The Yazidis were massacred by the Islamic State group when the jihadis seized the town in 2014. More than 2,000 were killed, and thousands of women and children were taken into slavery. Kurdish forces, supported by U.S. airstrikes, liberated the town in 2015.

Town Mayor Mahma Khalil said the Iranian-supported Popular Mobilization militia forces were securing Sinjar. The militias are recognized by Iraq’s government as a part of its armed forces but are viewed with deep suspicion by the country’s Kurdish authorities, which see them as an instrument of Tehran.

The Kurdish forces “left immediately, they didn’t want to fight,” Shingali said. The Shiite militia had supported Iraqi forces’ to oust Kurdish troops out of Kirkuk. The Kurdish forces withdrew to their autonomous region in the northeast.

OCTOBER 13, 2017

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Kurdish authorities said on Friday they had sent thousands more troops to Kirkuk to confront “threats” of Iraqi military attack, but also slightly pulled back defense lines around the disputed oil-producing area to ease tensions.

The Baghdad central government has taken a series of steps to isolate the autonomous Kurdish region since its overwhelming vote for independence in a Sept. 25 referendum, including banning international flights from going there.

Baghdad’s tough line, ruling out talks sought by the Kurds unless they renounce the breakaway move, is backed by neighbors Turkey and Iran – both with their own sizable Kurdish minorities, and in Turkey’s case, a long-running Kurdish insurgency.

Tens of thousands of Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers have been stationed in and around Kirkuk for some time and another 6,000 have arrived since Thursday, Kosrat Rasul, vice president in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), said.

In Washington, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday the situation had the full attention of the United States, which was working to ensure it does not escalate.

“We can’t turn on each other right now. We don’t want this to go to a shooting situation,” Mattis said. “These are issues that are longstanding in some cases … We’re going to have to recalibrate and move these back to a way (in which) we solve them politically and work them out with compromised solutions.”

The KRG’s Security Council expressed alarm late on Thursday at what it called a significant Iraqi military buildup south of Kirkuk, ”including tanks, artillery, Humvees and mortars.”“These forces are approximately 3 km (1.9 miles) from Peshmerga forces. Intelligence shows intentions to take over nearby oilfields, airport and military base,” it said in a statement.

Kurdish security sources later said that the Peshmerga had shifted their defense lines by 3 km (1.9 miles) to 10 km south of Kirkuk to reduce the risk of clashes with Iraqi forces, which then moved into some of the vacated positions without incident.

The area from which the Peshmerga withdrew is populated mainly by Shi‘ite Muslim Turkmen, many of whom are loyal to the Shi‘ite led-government in Baghdad and affiliated with Iranian-backed political parties and paramilitary groups.

An Iraqi military spokesman said military movements near Kirkuk aimed only to “inspect and secure” the nearby region of Hawija recaptured from Islamic State militants a week ago.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has repeatedly denied any plans to go further and actually attack the territory.

Kirkuk, a city of more than one million people, lies just outside KRG territory but Peshmerga forces deployed there in 2014 when Iraqi security forces collapsed in the face of an Islamic State onslaught. The Peshmerga deployment prevented Kirkuk’s oilfields from falling into jihadist hands.

KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani urged the United States, the European Union and the U.N. Security Council “to rapidly intervene to prevent a new war.”

Germany, which traditionally has good relations with both Baghdad and the KRG, called for measures to defuse tensions.

“We would like to ask them to meet those responsibilities and not to escalate the conflict,” German government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters in Berlin.

President Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman said on Thursday Ankara would gradually close border crossings with northern Iraq in coordination with the central Iraqi government and Iran.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim is expected in Baghdad on Sunday for talks with Abadi.

Additional reporting by Michael Nienaber; editing by Mark Heinrich and G Crosse

Source: Reuters.

Link: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-kurds-referendum-kirku/iraqs-kurds-beef-up-move-back-defense-line-around-oil-rich-kirkuk-idUSKBN1CI0UV.

2017-10-09

BAGHDAD – 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.

The central authorities have already severed ties between Kurdistan and the outside world by cutting international air links to the region, while neighboring Turkey and Iran have threatened to close their borders to oil exports.

Now, in a new round of attempts to ratchet up pressure, Baghdad’s National Security Council announced that a probe has been launched into Kurdistan’s lucrative oil revenues and officials in the region who might have illegally monopolized the market.

“The corrupt will be exposed and the funds recovered,” said a statement from the council, headed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.

The council also said that “a list of names” of Kurdish officials who helped organised the referendum had been compiled and “judicial measures have been taken against them”, without giving more details.

The central government — which has already demanded to take over Kurdistan’s airports and borders — is also looking to reclaim control over mobile phone companies in the region, including two of the largest providers in Iraq, the statement said.

Baghdad also once again called on Ankara and Tehran — which both opposed the referendum over fears of fueling demands from their own Kurdish communities — to close their border posts with Kurdistan and “stop all trade” with the region.

The angry dispute over the referendum — also rejected by the US — is the latest twist in the decades-long movement by Iraq’s Kurds to break away from Baghdad.

The referendum spat comes as Kurdish fighters and central government forces have continued to work together in offensives to push back the Islamic State group, with Washington warning the poll could “increase instability” in the region.

The defense committee in Iraq’s parliament demanded Kurdish security forces hand over IS fighters captured in a recent battle to retake the jihadist bastion of Hawija.

The US-led coalition backing up the operations against IS has estimated that some 1,000 jihadists surrendered, mostly to the Kurdish peshmerga forces, during the seizure of the town.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85289.

October 09, 2017

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi warned on Monday there could be a “civil war” over the Kurdish-administered city of Kirkuk if talks over Kurdish independence are left unresolved. Allawi, in an interview with The Associated Press, urged Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, as well as Iraq’s central government and its Iranian-backed militia forces, to show restraint and resolve their disputes over the oil-rich city.

The head of the Asaib al-Haq militia Qais Khazali warned worshipers in a sermon Sunday that Iraq’s Kurds were planning to claim much of north Iraq, including Kirkuk, for an independent state, after Iraq’s Kurds voted for independence in a controversial but non-binding referendum two weeks ago.

He said it would be tantamount to a “foreign occupation,” according to remarks reported by the Afaq TV channel, which is close to the state-sanctioned militia. Allawi, a former prime minister, said any move by the country’s Popular Mobilization Front militias, which include the Asaib al-Haq, to enter Kirkuk would “damage all possibilities for unifying Iraq” and open the door to “violent conflict.”

“The government claims they control the Popular Mobilization Forces. If they do they should restrain them, rather than go into a kind of civil war. And there should be a restraint on Masoud Barzani and the Peshmerga not to take aggressive measures to control these lands,” said Allawi.

Kirkuk was included in the September referendum even though it falls outside the autonomous Kurdish region in the country’s northeast. The ethnically-mixed city has been administered by Kurdish forces since 2014, when government forces fled from the advancing Islamic State group.

Barzani held the referendum over the strong objections of Baghdad, Ankara, and Tehran, enraging leaders in the regional capitals. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi demanded the Kurdish self-government annul the results and called for joint administration over Kirkuk. Baghdad closed the airspace over the Kurdish region to international flights.

Turkey and Iran also threatened punitive measures against the Kurdish region, fearing Kurds in their own countries would renew their campaigns for self-rule. “Iraqis should be left alone to discuss their own problems without interference,” said Allawi. “Kirkuk has become a flashpoint.”

Barzani has not declared independence for any part of northern Iraq.

October 08, 2017

BAGHDAD (AP) — A leading Iraqi parliamentarian upbraided the legislative body’s leader for meeting with Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani on Sunday as Baghdad’s politicians voiced their differences over how best to respond to a controversial Kurdish referendum for independence.

Iraqi member of Parliament Humam Hamoudi called Parliament Speaker Salim Jabouri’s meeting with Barzani “disappointing” and “unfortunate” and said Jabouri went to Barzani in a personal capacity, not as Parliament’s representative.

Two days of high level visits by Baghdad politicians to Irbil, the seat of the Kurdish regional government, have failed to resolve the impasse between Baghdad and its Kurdish region, which voted for independence in a non-binding referendum two weeks ago.

Jabouri’s visit, intended to break the deadlock, instead underscored the divisions within the capital over how to respond to the Kurdish vote. Few if any of Iraq’s national politicians want to see an independent Kurdistan, but there is little consensus beyond that.

Shiite politicians, especially those close to Iran, have urged a hard line against the Kurdish region. They see an opportunity to clip Barzani’s wings, which they see as the biggest obstacle to expanded Iranian influence in north Iraq, said Hadi Meraie, a political analyst and head of the Iraq Observatory for Press Freedoms.

“The Shiite groups consider that Barzani has crossed a red line to threaten Iraq’s unity and by extension Iran’s influence over the region,” said Meraie. The war on the Islamic State group has drawn the country’s Shiite-dominated Popular Mobilization Front militias, a main vessel of Iranian influence, deep into Sunni-majority northern Iraq, raising tensions with Kurdish Peshmerga militias also invested in the fight.

Sunnis, including Parliament Speaker Jabouri, and some Shiite politicians prefer to see Iran’s influence contained. Hamoudi is a leading member of the Iran-backed National Iraqi Alliance block, which controls the majority of seats in Parliament.

Last month’s referendum opened the door for Baghdad to reclaim oil-rich Kirkuk, an ethnically-mixed city outside the Kurdish zone that is currently under Peshmerga administration. The militia was able to claim the city after national forces fled from an IS advance in 2014.

The PMF, already distributed near the city, would be the big winners of a re-nationalized Kirkuk. “The crisis is at still in its formative stages, not in its resolution,” cautioned Meraie. Iraq’s Kurdish region voted for independence in a symbolic but controversial referendum two weeks ago. Baghdad responded by banning international flights out of the region and threatening to suspend Kurdish representatives from the national parliament. The vote was largely opposed by the region’s Arabs and other minorities.

Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi demanded the Kurdish self-government annul the results and called for joint administration over Kirkuk. Turkey and Iran also threatened punitive measures against the Kurdish region, fearing Kurds in their own countries would renew their campaigns for self-rule.

Jabouri’s meeting with Barzani came a day after Parliament adjourned itself to allow more time to resolve the crisis. “We met to stop the deterioration of relations between the center and the region,” said Jabouri in a statement after the meeting. He said the two leaders discussed Kirkuk.

Last week’s passing of former President Jalal Talabani, a Kurdish leader regarded as a unifying figure in post-invasion Iraq, failed to reconcile the two sides. Abadi skipped the funeral Thursday, held in the Kurdish city of Suleimaniyah. Talabani’s casket was draped in a Kurdish flag.

Barzani’s office said he and two of Iraq’s three vice presidents agreed Saturday to restore relations with Baghdad after a meeting in Irbil. The vice presidents’ offices denied any resolution. Iraq’s landlocked Kurdish region produces up to a quarter of Iraq’s petroleum output.

December 10, 2017

Thousands protested outside the US Embassy in the Indonesian capital on Sunday against US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, many waving banners saying “Palestine is in our hearts”.

Leaders in Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, have joined a global chorus of condemnation of Trump’s announcement, including Western allies who say it is a blow to peace efforts and risks sparking more violence.

Thousands of protesters in Muslim-majority countries in Asia have rallied in recent days to condemn the US move.

Israel maintains that all of Jerusalem is its capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a future independent state and say Trump’s move has left them completely sidelined.

Palestinian people were among the first to recognize Indonesia’s independence in 1945, Sohibul Iman, president of the opposition Prosperous Justice Party which organised the rally, told protesters.

Indonesia should be more proactive in “urging the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) member states and UN Security Council and the international community to respond immediately with more decisive and concrete political and diplomatic actions in saving the Palestinians from the Israeli occupation and its collaborator, the United States of America,” Iman said.

“Indonesia as the world’s largest Muslim country has the largest responsibility toward the independence of Palestine and the management of Jerusalem,” he told reporters, adding that he hoped Indonesia would take a leading role within the OIC on the matter.

“Trump has disrupted world peace. It’s terrible,” one protester, Yusri, told Reuters.

The decision was “a major disaster for the Palestinian people, while the Palestinian’s own rights have been taken away for a long time,” said Septi, a student at the rally.

Indonesia’s foreign minister left for Jordan on Sunday to meet the Palestinian and Jordanian foreign ministers “to convey Indonesia’s full support for Palestine”.

Most countries consider East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after capturing it in a 1967 war, to be occupied territory, and say the status of the city should be left to be decided at future Israeli-Palestinian talks.

While the international community has almost unanimously disagreed with Donald Trump’s announcement, reports suggest that the announcement was done with the pre-agreement of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, with the Saudi Arabia going as far as, allegedly, stating to the Palestinian President to accept a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem as the alternative Palestinian capital.

Since the announcement, Saudi Arabia’s royal court has sent notices to the nation’s media outlets to limit the airtime given to protests against Trump’s announcement.

Emboldened by Trump’s announcement, Israeli housing Minister Yoav Galant decided on Friday to promote a plan to build 14,000 new settlement units in the occupied Jerusalem.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20171210-thousands-of-indonesians-again-protest-trumps-jerusalem-move/.

December 07, 2017

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — The leaders of Greece and Turkey publicly aired their grievances Thursday in a tense news conference as a two-day visit to Athens by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan got off to a rocky start.

The Greek government had expressed hopes that the visit — the first to Greece by a Turkish president in 65 years — would help improve the often-frosty relations between the two neighbors. The NATO allies are divided by a series of decades-old issues, including territorial disputes in the Aegean Sea, and have come to the brink of war three times since the early 1970s.

But from the outset, the discussions focused on disagreements. On the eve of his visit, Erdogan rattled his Greek hosts by telling Greece’s Skai television that the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne should be “updated.” The treaty delineated modern Turkey’s borders and outlines the status of the Muslim minority in Greece and the Greek minority in Turkey, among other issues.

In a visibly testy first meeting with Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos, the two engaged in a thinly-veiled verbal spat over the treaty and Greece’s Muslim minority, which Erdogan is to visit Friday.

“This happened in Lausanne, that happened in Lausanne. I get that, but let’s now quickly do what is necessary,” Erdogan told Pavlopoulos. “Many things have changed in 94 years. If we review these, I believe that all the sides will agree that so many things have to (change.)”

The spat continued during Erdogan’s appearance at an unusually candid joint news conference with Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. The two listed a series of grievances their countries have with each other, including religious and minority rights, the divided island of Cyprus and the case of ten Turkish servicemen who have applied for asylum in Greece following a Turkish government crackdown after a failed coup last year.

“It is very important to strengthen our channels of communication, and this can only happen on the basis of mutual respect,” Tsipras said. The prime minister said the two also discussed tensions in the Aegean Sea, where Greece complains Turkish fighter jets frequently violate its airspace.

“The increasing violations of Greek airspace in the Aegean and particularly the simulated dogfights in the Aegean pose a threat to our relations, and particularly a threat to our pilots,” Tsipras said.

For his part, Erdogan insisted once more that the Lausanne treaty needed to be reviewed, but stressed his country had no territorial claims on its smaller neighbor. On the topic of the Muslim minority in Greece — which the country recognizes only as a religious minority, while Turkey has long pressed for better rights — Tsipras said his government agreed that improvements must be made in their quality of life.

“But issues that concern reforms involving Greek citizens are not an issue of negotiation between countries,” he said. Tsipras noted it was unclear exactly what Erdogan was seeking with his call to update the 1923 treaty.

“The truth is I am a little confused about what he is putting on the table,” he said. Greeks have been aghast at Erdogan’s previous comments over possibly revising the Lausanne treaty, fearing that could harbor territorial claims.

Erdogan and Tsipras also sparred over Cyprus, a Mediterranean island divided since a 1974 Turkish invasion into a Turkish-occupied north and an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south. Another round of internationally-brokered peace talks to reunify the island failed earlier this year.

“Who left the table? Southern Cyprus did … we want the issue to reach a fair and lasting solution but that is not southern Cyprus’ concern,” Erdogan said. Tsipras retorted: “My dear friend, Mr. President, we must not forget that this issue remains unresolved because 43 years ago there was an illegal invasion and occupation of the northern part of Cyprus.”

Erdogan also raised the issue of Athens having no official mosque, to which Tsipras responded by saying Greece had restored several mosques around the country, including a centuries-old mosque in Athens.

The refugee crisis appeared to be the only issue the two sides did not disagree on, with both noting they had shared a significant burden of the migration flows into the European Union. More than a million people crossed from Turkey through Greece at the height of the crisis.

Later Thursday, several hundred leftist, anarchist and Kurdish protesters held a peaceful march through Athens against Erdogan’s visit. On Friday, Erdogan will visit the northeastern town of Komotini to meet with members of Greece’s Muslim minority.

Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Derek Gatopoulos and Nicholas Paphitis in Athens contributed.

October 07, 2017

BAGHDAD (AP) — Thousands of Iraqi Kurdish mourners, Iraqi officials and world dignitaries attended the funeral of Jalal Talabani, the country’s first president in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and once a symbol of national unity.

Talabani was laid to rest Friday in Sulaimaniyah, the second-largest city in Iraq’s Kurdish region, after his casket — draped in the Kurdish flag — was flown back from Berlin where he died at a hospital earlier this week.

From the airport in Suleimaniyah, a motorcade carried the casket to a nearby hill for burial. Crowds poured into the streets, following the funeral procession on foot, carrying flags and posters bearing Talabani’s image and the emblem of the political party he founded more than three decades ago, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Many threw flowers on top of the coffin. While Talabani traces his roots to a small village in Iraq’s north, Sulaimaniyah is the seat of his political power. A long-time champion of Kurdish self-rule, Talabani, also established himself as a national statesman after accepting the largely symbolic office of the presidency two years after the 2003 U.S. invasion toppled Saddam.

He held the post from 2005 to 2014, but faded from Iraqi political life after suffering a debilitating stroke in 2012. During his time as president, Talabani was seen as a symbol of unity, a politician able to manage tensions between Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds that in Iraq often erupt into violence.

Talabani’s death in Germany on Tuesday came as Iraq struggles to manage the fallout of a controversial referendum on Kurdish independence spearheaded by his long-time Iraqi Kurdish political rival, Masoud Barzani.

While Barzani was present at the funeral and laid a wreath of white flowers at Talabani’s casket, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was not in attendance. Interior Minister Qassim al-Araji came to Sulaimaniyah to pay his respects in al-Abadi’s place.

Also in attendance were Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif; Iraq’s current president and fellow Kurd, Fuad Masum; U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Douglas A. Silliman, and Jan Kubis, the top U.N. envoy in Iraq.

Baghdad, along with neighboring Turkey and Iran, has rejected the Kurdish referendum and is demanding Kurdish leadership do the same. While the vote in non-binding and will not immediately create an independent state, many saw it as a symbolic affirmation of the Iraqi Kurdish dreams for a state of their own.

Iraq’s central government has banned international flights from servicing the Kurdish region’s airports and Turkey and Iran, fearful of their own restive Kurdish minorities, have threatened further punitive measures.

Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan threatened a total blockade and has not ruled out the possibility of military invasion. As Talabani’s coffin arrived at Sulaimaniyah airport, Iraqi state TV hailed the late president as a national leader who would not have approved of the referendum, called by Barzani.

However, Talabani had not made any official statement on the vote and his political party was split on the subject. Iraq’s Kurds have been politically divided for decades. Shortly after securing an autonomous zone in the 1990s with the backing of a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone, Barzani and Talabani’s rival factions — mainly their Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party — were drawn into a bitter civil war that killed thousands of civilians and fighters on both sides.

Deep distrust remains to this day, but across the political spectrum, the dream of an independent state is a central rallying point. Both the referendum vote and Talabani’s death whipped up nationalist sentiment throughout the Kurdish region.

“Since the beginning of the Kurdish liberation movement until now, it was Mam Jalal who brought us to this point,” said Karim Mohammed, a Sulaimaniyah resident among the crowds gathered to pay their respects, “he always looked after us.”

“Mam Jalal” is Talabani’s Kurdish nickname that translates to Uncle Jalal. The United Nations described Talabani as “a leading voice of moderation, dialogue, mutual understanding and respect in Iraq’s contemporary politics” and a “patriot of unique wisdom and foresight.”

Talabani’s son and the Kurdish region’s deputy prime minister, Qubad Talabani, spoke at the funeral ceremony, saying that his family received condolences from across the Kurdish region. “He was an uncle to all of you. He belonged to all of Kurdistan,” Qubad said in remarks broadcast on local Kurdish television.

Associated Press writer Adnan Ahmed Qader in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, and Susannah George in Baghdad contributed to this report.

October 06, 2017

BAGHDAD (AP) — Thousands of mourners gathered in the Iraqi city of Sulaimaniyah to pay their respects to late Kurdish leader and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who was to be buried Friday in the town that was the seat of his political power.

Talabani, once a champion of Kurdish self-rule, is being remembered as a national statesman after accepting the largely symbolic office of the presidency two years after the 2003 U.S. invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. He held the post from 2005 to 2014 despite suffering a debilitating stroke in 2012.

His death came at a charged moment in national politics, with Iraq’s Kurdistan region voting by an overwhelming majority to endorse independence in a non-binding referendum held last month. The results were rejected by Iraq’s central government and neighboring Turkey and Iran, who have threatened to take punitive measures against the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq’s north.

Iraq’s central government closed the airspace over Kurdistan to international flights, and Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan threatened a total blockade. The Turkish leader has not ruled out the possibility of a military invasion either. Ankara and Tehran are afraid their own sizeable Kurdish minorities will follow Iraqi Kurdistan’s example and agitate for self-rule.

With Talabani’s coffin arriving at Sulaimaniyah airport, Iraqi state TV hailed the late president as a national leader who would not have approved of the referendum called by his Kurdish rival and President of the Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani. Barzani and Talabani fought a bitter civil war in the 1990s that left thousands dead.

Talabani’s casket was received at Suleimaniyah airport draped in a Kurdish flag before being moved in a motorcade through the region’s second city. Supporters mobbed the procession, some waving the green flag of Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party.

Talabani’s casket was met at the airport by Iraqi leaders and foreign dignities, including Barzani and Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif. Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, mired in the fallout of the Kurdistani referendum, was conspicuously absent. Interior Minister Qassim al-Araji was there in his stead.