Tag Archive: Battle Nation of Kurdistan


February 26, 2018

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkey has submitted documents to the Czech authorities formally requesting the extradition of the former leader of a Syrian Kurdish party, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said Monday.

Salih Muslim, former co-chair of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, was detained in the Czech capital of Prague on Saturday under an Interpol red notice based on a Turkish request for his arrest. Turkey considers the PYD a “terrorist group” linked to outlawed Kurdish insurgents fighting within Turkey’s own borders.

Muslim was put on Turkey’s most-wanted list earlier in February with a $1 million reward. On Monday, Turkish prosecutors issued a new warrant for his detention, accusing Muslim and about 30 other people of being behind a bomb attack on a tax office in Ankara earlier this month.

Nine people — suspected Kurdish militants — were detained in connection with the attack, which caused damage to the tax office but no casualties. Bozdag said during a live television interview Monday that Turkey’s Justice Ministry had sent a “file” formally requesting his extradition.

Muslim was expected to appear before a Prague court on Tuesday, which would then decide if he will remain in detention, Turkish Ambassador in Prague Ahmet Necati Bigali told Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency.

The PYD is the leading political Kurdish force in northern Syria, and Muslim remains highly influential in the party, even after stepping down as co-chair last year. On Jan. 20, Turkey launched an incursion into northern Syria, seeking to rout the U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the People’s Protection Units or YPG, from the enclave of Afrin. The YPG is the armed wing of the PYD.

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24.01.2018

By Adham Kako and Muhammed Misto

AZAZ / ANKARA

The Kurdish fighters of the Free Syrian Army say they are defending their own land against the PYD/PKK terrorist organization, vowing to free Afrin from their occupation.

In an exclusive interview with Anadolu Agency in the northwestern Syrian town of Azaz, Abu Fayad, one of the Kurdish fighters, who vigorously make the case that the PYD/PKK can never represent the Kurds living in the region, said they were Kurds speaking Kurdish and had nothing to do with the PKK.

“We’ve been defending our villages, our land for a long time. What do they [the PKK] want from us? They are terrorists whereas we are a free army,” Fayad said.

“The PKK has no religion and they came from some place far away. In order to do what? Of course, to steal our land. So what kind of relationship can we possibly have with them? We won’t let them get anywhere near us,” Abu Fayad said.

He stressed that Turkey was a Muslim country that would never harm them.

“If our people here think that Turkey would harm them, they are wrong. Turkey wants our well-being. They won’t harm us,” he said.

As regards the recent situation in Afrin, where the Free Syrian Army and the Turkish Armed Forces have launched Operation Olive Branch, Abu Fayad reiterated:

“Turkey has our best interests at heart in this region, and it is hand in hand with us, working with us. God bless the people and government of Turkey,” Abu Fayad added.

The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) launched Operation Olive Branch on Saturday to remove all PYD/PKK and Daesh terrorists from Afrin, establish security and stability along Turkish borders and the region as well as to protect the Syrian people from the oppression and cruelty of terrorists, according to a statement issued the same day.

The military notes that the operation is being carried out under the framework of Turkey’s rights based on international law, UN Security Council’s decisions, self-defense rights under the UN charter and respect to Syria’s territorial integrity.

It is also frequently emphasized that “utmost care” is being shown not to harm any civilians.

Afrin has been a major hideout for the PYD/PKK since July 2012 when the Assad regime in Syria left the city to the terror group without putting up a fight.

Source: Anadolu Agency.

Link: http://aa.com.tr/en/middle-east/turkey-defends-our-interests-kurdish-fsa-fighter/1041160.

January 14, 2018

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey’s president said Sunday the country will launch a military assault on a Kurdish enclave in northern Syria “in the coming days,” and urged the U.S. to support its efforts. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the operation against the Afrin enclave aims to “purge terror” from his country’s southern border.

Afrin is controlled by a Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG. Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist group linked to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) that has waged a bloody insurgency within its borders.

A YPG spokesman in Afrin said clashes erupted after midnight between his unit and Turkish troops near the border with Turkey. Rojhat Roj said the shelling of areas in Afrin district, in Aleppo province, killed one YPG fighter and injured a couple of civilians on Sunday.

Turkey and its Western allies, including the U.S., consider the PKK a terrorist organization. But the U.S. has been arming some of Syria’s Kurds to defeat the Islamic State group in Syria — a sore point in already tense U.S.-Turkish relations.

The Turkish president said “despite it all” he wants to work with the U.S. in the region and hopes it will not side with the YPG during the upcoming Afrin operation. “It’s time is to support Turkey in its legitimate efforts” to combat terror, said Erdogan.

He added that the new operation would be an extension of Turkey’s 2016 incursion into northern Syria, which aimed to combat IS and stem the advance of U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. Turkish troops are stationed in rebel-held territory on both sides of Afrin.

Roj said the Kurdish militia will fight to “defend our gains, our territories.” Senior Kurdish official Hediye Yusuf wrote on Twitter that the Turkish operation against Afrin is a “violation” of the Syrian people and undermines international efforts to reach a political solution in Syria.

The Turkey-PKK conflict has killed an estimated 40,000 people since 1984 and the resumption of hostilities in July 2015 killed more than 3,300 people, including state security forces, militants and civilians.

February 25, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — Czech authorities detained a former leader of a Syrian Kurdish political party under an Interpol red notice that was based on Turkey’s request for his arrest, Turkish and Syrian Kurdish officials said Sunday.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Salih Muslim, former co-chair of the Democratic Union Party, or PYD, was “caught.” Speaking in Sanliurfa Sunday, Erdogan said, “Our hope, God willing, is that the Czech Republic will hand him over to Turkey.”

Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said Turkey requested Muslim’s detention for extradition after locating him in a Prague hotel. Bozdag called Muslim the “terrorist head.” A Kurdish official close to Muslim, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the former PYD leader was in Prague attending a conference. After a Turkish participant took a photograph of him, Czech police detained the Syrian politician Saturday, following a request by Turkey.

Czech police say that have arrested and placed in detention a 67-year-old foreigner at the request of Turkey’s Interpol. No further details were immediately released by Czech police. Muslim was put on Turkey’s most-wanted list earlier in February with a $1 million reward.

The Turkish justice ministry said Muslim was being tried in absentia for his alleged involvement in a March 2016 car bomb attack on Turkey’s capital, which killed 36 people and injured 125. Turkey considers the PYD a “terrorist group” linked to outlawed Kurdish insurgents fighting within Turkey’s own borders for more than three decades.

The party is the leading political Kurdish force in northern Syria, and Muslim remains highly influential even after stepping down as co-chair last year. The PYD condemned in a statement Muslim’s detention, saying the move is an “illegal and immoral act by Czech authorities” and calling for his immediate release.

The group also accused Turkey of adopting “dirty methods in chasing personalities that are playing a role in the fight against terrorism,” highlighting Muslim’s major role in mobilizing international opinion in the fight against the Islamic State group.

The United States has been backing the PYD’s armed wing, the People’s Protection Units or YPG, in combating the extremist IS. The alliance has tensed relations between Washington and Ankara, who are NATO allies.

On Jan. 20, Turkey launched an incursion into northern Syria, seeking to rout the YPG from the enclave of Afrin. The Kurdish official said the former PYD leader was invited to Prague to take part in a conference held once every six months to discuss issues linked to the Middle East such as the Syrian crisis, Turkey, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The justice ministry said it was submitting an extradition request for Muslim. An extradition request would have to be approved by a Czech court and by the justice minister. Muslim is a Syrian citizen.

Turkey shares a 911-kilometer border with Syria. The YPG controls much of the territory along the border.

Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul and Karel Janicek in Prague contributed to this report.

February 01, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s Kurdish militia is growing frustrated with its patron, the United States, and is pressing it to do more to stop Turkey’s assault on a key stronghold in Syria. The issue reflects a deeper concern among the Kurds over their alliance with the Americans, which proved vital to defeating the Islamic State group in Syria. The Kurds fear that ultimately they and their dream of self-rule will be the losers in the big powers’ play over influence in Syria. Already the U.S. is in a tough spot, juggling between the interests of the Kurds, its only ally in war-torn Syria, and its relations with Turkey, a key NATO ally.

The Kurdish militia views defending the Kurdish enclave of Afrin as an existential fight to preserve their territory. Afrin has major significance — it’s one of the first Kurdish areas to rise up against President Bashar Assad and back self-rule, a base for senior fighters who pioneered the alliance with the Americans and a key link in their efforts to form a contiguous entity along Turkey’s border. The offensive, which began Jan. 20, has so far killed more than 60 civilians and dozens of fighters on both sides, and displaced thousands.

“How can they stand by and watch?” Aldar Khalil, a senior Kurdish politician said of the U.S.-led coalition against IS. “They should meet their obligations toward this force that participated with them (in the fight against terrorism.) We consider their unclear and indecisive positions as a source of concern.”

Khalil, one of the architects of the Kurds’ self-administration, and three other senior Kurdish officials told The Associated Press that they have conveyed their frustration over what they consider a lack of decisive action to stop the Afrin assault to U.S. and other Western officials. They said U.S. officials have made confusing statements in public. One of the officials who agreed to discuss private meetings on condition of anonymity said some U.S. comments even amounted to tacit support for the assault.

The fight for Afrin puts Washington in a bind with few good options. The Americans have little leverage and no troops in Afrin, which is located in a pocket of Kurdish control at the western edge of Syria’s border with Turkey and is cut off from the rest of Kurdish-held territory by a Turkish-held enclave. The area is also crowded with other players. Russian troops were based there to prevent friction with Turkey until they withdrew ahead of the offensive, and the area — home to more than 300,000 civilians — is surrounded by territory held by Syrian government forces or al-Qaida-linked militants.

The Americans’ priority for the YPG — the main Kurdish militia that forms the backbone of forces allied to the U.S. — is for them to govern the large swath of territory wrested from the Islamic State group in northern and eastern Syria, including the city of Raqqa. Washington wants to prevent IS from resurging and keep Damascus’ ally, Iran, out of the area.

Afrin is not central to those American goals and U.S. officials say it will distract from the war on IS. The U.S-led coalition has distanced itself from the Kurdish forces in Afrin, saying they have not received American training and were not part of the war against the Islamic State group in eastern Syria. But it also implicitly criticized the Turkish assault as unhelpful.

“Increased violence in Afrin disrupts what was a relatively stable area of Syria. Furthermore, it distracts from efforts to ensure the lasting defeat of Daesh and could be exploited by Daesh for resupply and safe haven,” the coalition said in an emailed statement to the AP, using the Arabic acronym for IS.

For its part, Turkey views the YPG as an extension of its own Kurdish insurgent groups and has vowed to “purge” them from its borders. While the U.S. may distance itself from the fighting in Afrin, it can’t sit by silently if Turkey goes ahead with its threat to expand the fight to Manbij, a Syrian town to the east where American troops are deployed alongside Kurdish forces that took the town from IS in 2016.

One option is a proposal by the Kurds to persuade Assad to deploy his troops as a buffer between the Kurds and Turks in Afrin. Nobohar Mustafa, a Kurdish envoy to Washington, said the Americans appear open to that proposal. However, so far Assad’s government has refused; they want full control of the area.

Another option could be to seek a compromise with Turkey by withdrawing U.S. and Kurdish forces from Manbij, said Elizabeth Teoman, a Turkey specialist with the Institute for the Study of War. “The Turks may accept that as an intermediate step, but the U.S. will consistently face threats of escalation from Turkey as long as we maintain our partnership with the Syrian Kurdish YPG,” Teoman said.

U.S. officials have reportedly said recently that they have no intention of pulling out of Manbij. Kurdish officials say they don’t expect the Americans to go to war with Turkey or send troops to fight with them in Afrin.

But “this doesn’t mean the U.S. doesn’t have a role in stopping the war on Afrin,” said Mustafa, the Kurdish envoy to Washington. She said Kurdish officials weren’t surprised the Americans have distanced themselves from the Afrin dispute “but we didn’t expect their stance to be that low.”

She and Khalil have lobbied Washington and Europe for a more aggressive stance against Turkey’s advances. Other than the proposal to allow Syrian border guards to deploy, they have suggested international observers along a narrow buffer zone. Mustafa said the U.S. could argue that the YPG presence in northwestern Syria, where al-Qaida-linked militants have their stronghold, is necessary to fight terrorism. Khalil said he has pressed other NATO members to urge Turkey to stop airstrikes.

Meanwhile, a heated media campaign has been launched to “Save Afrin,” while Kurdish supporters in Europe have staged regular protests and a senior YPG official wrote an op-ed for the New York Times. In Washington, U.S. officials rejected the notion that the United States hasn’t tried hard enough to rein in Turkey. In addition to publicly urging Turkey to limit its operation and avoid expanding further east, they noted that President Donald Trump spoke about it directly with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The White House said that Trump used that call to urge Turkey to “deescalate, limit its military actions, and avoid civilian casualties and increases to displaced persons and refugees.”

They say that since Turkey has proceeded, the U.S. has been left with only bad options. Although the U.S. doesn’t want to see Assad’s government return to the area between Afrin and Turkey, it may be the “least worst situation,” said a U.S. official involved in Syria policy.

The United States has less ability to influence negotiations about how to secure the border than Russia, whose forces have long had a strong presence in the area, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private diplomatic discussions.

The Trump administration has also quietly acknowledged that ultimately, the Kurds may be disappointed if they are expecting loyalty even on matters where U.S. and Kurdish interests diverge. Turkey, after all, is a NATO ally. Asked recently if Washington had a moral obligation to stick with the Kurds, senior Trump administration officials said Trump’s “America first” doctrine dictated that the U.S. must always prioritize its own interests.

From the Kurdish perspective, “the Americans are missing the whole point. If Erdogan is not stopped at Afrin, he will turn eastward and will not stop until he has destroyed the entire edifice” built by the Kurds in eastern Syria, said Nicholas Heras, of the Center for a New American Security.

“The challenge for the YPG is that it has power only so long as it continues to act as the key, local proxy for the U.S. mission in Syria,” Heras said.

Associated Press writers Josh Lederman and Lolita Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.

2018-01-24

BERLIN – Berlin and Ankara planned to discuss on Wednesday Turkey’s cross-border offensive against a Kurdish militia in Syria, officials said, amid controversy over German-built tanks being deployed in the conflict.

German ambassador Martin Erdmann and Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli were to talk about “how the Turkish operation is equipped,” said German foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Adebahr.

The German government has come under domestic pressure after battlefield images appeared to show Turkey deploying German-made Leopard 2 tanks in its offensive to oust Kurdish militants in northern Syria.

The Kurdish Community Group of Germany accused Berlin of “complicity through weapons delivery to the terror state Turkey”.

German conservative lawmaker Norbert Roettgen, who heads the parliamentary committee of foreign affairs, urged Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel to halt further arms deals with Turkey.

“It is completely out of the question for Germany to increase the combat strength of the Leopard tanks in Turkey if the Turkish army is going after the Kurds in northern Syria,” Roettgen told Tagesspiegel daily.

Roettgen, a leading figure in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party, said weapons deliveries to Turkey should instead “be banned due to the human rights situation and the dismantling of the rule of law in the country.”

Germany’s criticism of the human rights situation in Turkey, particularly after the government’s crackdown following a failed coup in 2016, badly strained ties between the NATO allies.

Relations have started to gradually thaw in recent weeks with the foreign ministers of both countries vowing to mend ties.

But Turkey’s offensive against the Kurdish militia threatens to reverse the rapprochement with Germany, which is home to large ethnic Turkish and Kurdish minorities.

Berlin delivered 354 Leopard 2 tanks to Turkey between 2006 and 2011.

Under the weapons deal sealed in 2005, Ankara is prohibited only from giving or selling the tanks to third parties without prior approval from Berlin, with no other restrictions on how the tanks are used.

– Skirmishes –

Leading Turkish and Kurdish groups in Germany on Wednesday accused each other of “importing” a foreign conflict in the wake of Ankara’s cross-border offensive against a Syrian Kurdish militia.

Skirmishes have erupted between the two groups in Germany since Turkey on Saturday launched its operation “Olive Branch” to oust the US-backed YPG, whom Ankara views as a terror group, from their Afrin enclave in northern Syria.

Three million ethnic Turks live in Germany, the largest diaspora and a legacy of the country’s “guest worker” program of the 1960 and 70s, as well as hundreds of thousands of Kurds.

Germany’s Turkish-dominated Coordination Council of Mosques said the conflict had been used as an excuse to launch a spate of “attacks on Turkish mosque groups” in Europe’s biggest economy.

“The fighting in northern Syria has been taken as an opportunity to incite against Turkish infrastructure and in particular mosques, and to import terror into Germany,” it said in a statement.

At least two mosques of the Turkish-controlled Ditib group were hit in western Germany’s Minden and the eastern city of Leipzig, said the council.

Windows of the buildings were smashed and walls vandalized, said the council, without naming possible suspects.

It also pointed to a brawl that broke out between Kurds and Turkish passengers at Hanover Airport on Monday, which forced police to intervene to separate the two sides.

“We condemn these attacks and call for calm on all sides,” said the council.

The Kurdish Community of Germany, for its part, accused Ditib imams of calling for jihad against the Kurds in Syria.

“The believers are told to pray for a victory of the Turkish army in the war against the Kurds,” the Kurdish group said, deploring the “instrumentalisation of religion and mosques for a war”.

“Mosques, that are partly financed by taxes and donations from citizens in Germany, are praying for glorious victory and death through jihad, the holy war,” added the group’s deputy leader Mehmet Tanriverdi.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=86911.

2017-10-31

ANKARA – Iraqi government forces on Tuesday took control of the key border crossing with Turkey in the Iraqi Kurdistan region after weeks of tensions between Baghdad and Arbil, the Turkish prime minister said.

The border crossing “has been handed over to the central government” of Iraq, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told his ruling party at a televised meeting in Ankara.

He said all controls at the border will now be carried out by Iraqi and Turkish officials on their respective sides.

The Iraqi forces deployed at the Ibrahim Al Khalil crossing alongside Turkish forces with whom they have been carrying out joint exercises over the last weeks, the state-run Anadolu news agency said.

They were to raise the Iraqi national flag and take down the flag of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) which had until now controlled the crossing, it said.

The border crossing was closed while the handover was being carried out, leading to long queues, it added. There were no reports of any clashes.

The Kurdish region has found itself increasingly isolated after holding a non-binding independence referendum on September 25 that was opposed not just by Baghdad but also Iran, Turkey and the Kurds’ Western allies.

Turkey, which over the last years had cultivated strong trade ties with the KRG, reacted with fury to the referendum, fearing the move could encourage separatism amongst its own Kurdish minority.

Deemed by many analysts to have severely overplayed his hand by holding the referendum, the KRG’s leader Massud Barzani said at the weekend that he was stepping down.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://www.middle-east-online.com/english/?id=85691.

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.

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.