Tensions rise in Iraq as Kurds fear major attack by government forces

Fighters from the Hashed al-Shaabi, backing the Iraqi forces, hold a position in Hawija on Oct 6, 2017. The Kurdistan Regional Government’s Security Council said they received messages that the Hashed al-Shaabi and federal police are preparing a major attack. PHOTO: AFP

ERBIL, IRAQ (AFP) - Tensions escalated between Iraq's Kurds and Baghdad on Thursday (Oct 12) as warnings of a "major attack" by government forces prompted Kurdish peshmerga fighters to temporarily block roads from other parts of the country.

The move came just over two weeks after Kurdish voters overwhelmingly backed independence in a non-binding referendum the central government slammed as illegal.

Iraqi Kurdish forces closed the two main roads connecting Erbil and Dohuk with Mosul for several hours, a Kurdish military official said.

"The closure was prompted by fears of a possible attack by Iraqi forces on the disputed areas," held by Kurdish forces but outside the autonomous Kurdish region, the official said.

Kurdish authorities said late on Wednesday they feared Iraqi government forces and allied paramilitary units were gearing up to launch an assault on the autonomous northern region.

"We're receiving dangerous messages that the Hashed al-Shaabi (paramilitary forces) and federal police are preparing a major attack from the southwest of Kirkuk and north of Mosul against Kurdistan," the Kurdistan Regional Government's Security Council said.

Security sources said on Thursday that Iraq's elite Counter Terrorism Service and Rapid Response Force had deployed more forces near peshmerga positions around Rashad, a village some 65 kilometres southwest of Kirkuk city.

The oil-rich province of the same name, areas of which took part in the referendum, is disputed between the Kurds and Baghdad.

The spokesman for Iraq's Joint Operations Command refused to confirm or deny preparations for an offensive against Kurdish forces.

Brigadier-General Yahiya Rassul said his forces had received images of the road barriers but that "dialogue" would resolve the problem.

"Our mission is clear: we are fighting a single enemy, Daesh," he said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS, or Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

"All that interests Iraqis... is to liberate our country and beat the terrorist group," he said. "We do not forget the role played by the peshmerga." He said Iraqi government forces had previously operated close to peshmerga lines near the northern city of Tal Afar.

Asked if there had been movements of Iraqi forces close to peshmerga positions, Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the US-led coalition battling ISIS in Syria and Iraq, said: "We don't see that." The coalition has worked with both peshmerga and Iraqi pro-government forces in the battle to oust ISIS from areas it seized in Iraq in mid-2014.

"Our mission is clear - to defeat Daesh," Col Dillon said.

"We have done that throughout Iraq. We will support the Iraqis in the same way we have in the last three years to make sure that Daesh is defeated".

Central authorities severed ties between the Kurdish autonomous region and the outside world after the referendum by cutting international air links.

Neighbouring Turkey and Iran, which fear that Iraqi Kurdish moves towards independence could fuel demands from their own sizeable Kurdish communities, have also threatened to close their borders to oil exports.

An Iraqi court on Wednesday ordered the arrest of senior Kurdish officials responsible for organising the referendum, saying they had done so "in contravention of a ruling by the Iraqi supreme court".

The warrant is likely to prove toothless as Baghdad's security forces do not operate inside Kurdistan, but it could stop the officials leaving the region.

Iraq has also launched a probe into Kurdistan's lucrative oil revenues and pledged to expose "corrupt" officials in the region who might have illegally monopolised the market.

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