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An Iraqi federal policeman inspects a dead body at the home of Shiite cleric Mahmoud al-Sarkhi after clashes with his followers in the Shiite holy city of Karbala
Saudis deploy 30,000 troops on Iraq border

DUBAI, July 3, (Agencies): Saudiowned al-Arabiya television said Saudi Arabia had deployed 30,000 soldiers to its border with Iraq on Thursday after Iraqi forces abandoned the area, but Baghdad denied pulling forces back and said it remained in full control of its frontier. Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil exporter, shares an 800-km (500-mile) desert border with Iraq, where Islamic State insurgents and other Sunni Muslim militant groups seized towns and cities in a lightning advance last month.

The US-allied kingdom overcame its own al-Qaeda insurgency almost a decade ago and is wary of any new threat from radical Sunni Islamists.

The Dubai-based al-Arabiya said on its website that Saudi troops had fanned out into the border region after Iraqi government forces withdrew from their positions, leaving the Saudi and Syrian frontiers exposed. It aired a video which, it said, showed some 2,500 Iraqi soldiers in the desert region east of the Iraqi city of Kerbala after pulling back from the border, which is reinforced on the Saudi side by a system of fences. An officer in the video said that the soldiers had been ordered to quit their posts without justification.

The authenticity of the recording could not immediately be verified. However, the Iraqi prime minister’s military spokesman, Lieutenant General Qassim Atta, told reporters in Baghdad: “This is false news aimed at affecting the morale of our people and the morale of our heroic fighters.” He said the frontier, which runs through largely empty desert, was “fully in the grip” of Iraqi border troops. Saudi Arabia’s Interior Ministry security spokesman, Major General Mansour Turki, said: “We have not experienced any insecurity close to our border, and our border is secured and protected long before the latest events in Iraq.” The state news agency SPA said King Abdullah had ordered all necessary measures to protect the kingdom against potential “terrorist threats”.

Diplomatic sources in the Gulf say Saudi Arabia’s border with Iraq is relatively well defended, but that its frontier with Jordan might provide an easier route for any militants trying to enter Saudi Arabia from Iraq. The US military’s top officer said Thursday that Iraqi forces had shored up their defenses around Baghdad but would need outside help to eventually regain territory lost to Sunni militants.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a news conference that the initial impression from American military advisers on the ground was that Iraqi forces were not yet in a position to stage a major counter-offensive after being driven back by the Sunni extremists. “If you are asking me will the Iraqis, at some point, be able to go back on the offensive to recapture the part of Iraq that they’ve lost... probably not by themselves,” Dempsey said.

But the Iraqi army’s shortcomings did not necessarily mean the United States would have to take military action, he said. “I’m not suggesting that that’s the direction this is headed.” An Iraqi military campaign designed to roll back the Islamist militants would take time to develop and would have to be accompanied by clear signals from the Shiite-led government in Baghdad that it is ready to reach out to Sunni and Kurdish communities, the general said.

Dempsey said “the first step in developing that campaign is to determine whether we have a reliable Iraqi partner that is committed to growing their country into something that all Iraqis will be willing to participate in. “If the answer to that is ‘no,’ then the future’s pretty bleak.” About 200 US military advisers have deployed to Baghdad with orders to assess the state of the Iraqi army and the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS) jihadists, who have seized control in areas north and west of Baghdad. And nearly 500 US troops have been sent to Iraq to bolster security at the American embassy and parts of the Baghdad airport.

Meanwhile, Massud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, asked its parliament on Thursday to start organising a referendum on the long-held dream of independence. Parliament should make “preparations to begin to organise a referendum on the right of self-determination,” Barzani said, according to a recording obtained by AFP of remarks he made in a closed session. “It will strengthen our position and will be a powerful weapon in our hands,” the Kurdish leader added.

The autonomous Kurdistan region has long been at odds with Iraq’s federal government over numerous issues, especially what Kurdish politicians say are delayed and insufficient budget payments to the region this year. But the issue is significantly complicated by Kurdish forces having taken control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk after federal government troops withdrew in the face of a Sunni militant offensive that began on June 9. Kirkuk lies at the centre of a swathe of territory that Kurdish officials want to incorporate into their three-province autonomous region, over Baghdad’s strong objections. Article 140 of Iraq’s constitution was supposed to pave the way for a vote on whether the disputed areas would be folded into Kurdistan, but was never implemented due to political bickering.

Barzani now says the issue is resolved, and told Kurdish lawmakers that “nothing is left but for the residents of these regions to decide on self determination.” Even if the Kurds vote for independence, Baghdad is all but certain to oppose that territory being kept by the region. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has rejected Kurdish assertions that their peshmerga forces will remain in the disputed areas.

Return
“And for those who say they will return to these regions, I say they are mistaken, because the peshmerga will not withdraw from them under any circumstances,” Barzani said. Islamic militants in Iraq have freed 32 Turkish truck drivers held hostage for three weeks in a mass kidnapping that shocked Turkey, the foreign minister said Thursday. The truck drivers are now on their way back to Turkey through northern Iraq but a separate group of almost 50 kidnapped Turks remain in captivity, Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu told reporters. “The 32 drivers were delivered to our consul,” Davutoglu said in Ankara, adding that they were now on their way to the city of Arbil in the relatively stable Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. Previous reports had said 31 truck drivers had been held. They had been kidnapped by militants from the jihadist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) who now control swathes of the country.

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