KIRKUK, Aug 29, (Agencies): The council in Kirkuk, an ethnically mixed region of northern Iraq under Baghdad’s control, voted Tuesday to take part in next month’s Kurdish independence referendum, councillors said.
The central government in Baghdad is strongly opposed to Iraqi Kurdistan’s planned Sept 25 referendum, which is non-binding but could lead to independence.
Kirkuk, an oil-rich province made up of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, is under Baghdad’s control but is claimed by the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region.
In Tuesday’s vote, 22 of the 24 present councillors in the 41-member Kirkuk council voted in favour of holding the referendum, said councillor Hala Nur Eddine.
Speaking to journalists afterwards, Kirkuk governor Najm Eddine Karim described the vote as a “historic event”.
But Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi denounced the decision, which he called “not serious”, while his spokesman Saad al-Hadithi said the vote was “illegal and unconstitutional”.
“Provinces that don’t belong to the autonomous region (of Kurdistan) can’t impose decisions without the federal government’s approval, and Kirkuk is one of these regions,” Hadithi said.
Arshad al-Salhi, a lawmaker and the head of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, said the council’s decision “will create new conflicts in Iraq”.
The plans to hold the referendum have been criticised by neighbouring Turkey and Iran, which have large Kurdish minority populations.
The Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement that the Kirkuk’s council decision was “another link in a chain of mistakes” and “once more a serious violation of the Iraqi constitution.”
There are also doubts about the vote among the five million Iraqi Kurds, with some calling for it to be postponed.
The United States has made the same demand, saying the referendum could distract from the fight against the Islamic State group by stoking tensions between the Kurds, and Arabs and Turkmen.
The dispute over Kirkuk is seen as a reason for delays to the launch of an Iraqi-Kurdish military offensive aimed at recapturing the city of Hawija from IS.
Meanwhile, the United States and Iraq have banished a senior Islamic State finance official from their financial systems, the US Treasury Department said on Tuesday.
The US Treasury named Salim Mustafa Muhammad al-Mansur, a finance official for the Islamic militant group, as a “specially designated global terrorist,” a move that freezes any property he might have in the United States and bars Americans from dealing with him.
Iraq’s government also barred Mansur from its financial system and froze any assets under its jurisdiction, Treasury said. Islamic State, also called ISIS, seized large swathes of Iraq in 2014 in a bid to establish an Islamic “caliphate,” but has since lost territory in a US-backed campaign against the group.
“Treasury continues to work in close collaboration with the Government of Iraq to dismantle ISIS financial networks both inside and outside of ISIS-controlled territory,” said John E. Smith, director of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, which enforces sanctions.
In 2014, Mansur helped transfer hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dinars to Islamic State in Mosul, and then helped launder and transfer money for the group and sold oil it extracted from Iraq and Syria, Treasury said.
As of early this year, Mansur had moved to Turkey but was still serving as an Islamic State finance official for Mosul, Iraq, Treasury said.
An Iraqi military spokesman says Islamic State militants are putting up tough resistance in a small area outside the newly liberate town of Tal Afar.
The spokesman for the Joint Military Command, Brig Gen Yahya Rasool, says the military launched a series of heavy airstrikes and artillery since early morning Tuesday on the militants’ positions in al-Ayadia district, about 10 kms (6 miles) northwest of Tal Afar.
In a separate statement, the military says the troops have entered the district, without giving details.
Last week, US-backed Iraqi troops launched a multi-pronged operation to retake Tal Afar, a month after declaring Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, fully liberated. The militants still control the northern town of Hawija as well as Qaim, Rawa and Ana, in western Iraq near the Syrian border.
Fighting in 50-degree desert heat is bad enough, but add choking exhaust fumes amid the confines of armoured vehicles, and no wonder the soldiers await their daily ice deliveries.
In Tal Abta south of Tal Afar, where Iraqi forces have been engaged in mopping up operations against diehard jihadists of the Islamic State group, a key force is engaged in a vital mission.
Men in T-shirts or military camouflage busy themselves around a special truck amid the constant drone of generators.
At the back of the truck, hosepipe in hand, one member of the team fills eight huge rectangular moulds that are then lowered into an enormous cistern for refrigeration.
The cistern itself holds water that has been salted to accelerate the freezing process as it circulates at high speed.
Salt helps absorb the heat of the water in the moulds which slowly solidifies into ice in an endothermic reaction over five to six hours.
The huge blocks of ice are then trucked to the front line and the thirsty fighters.
Hamid Sallal set up his mobile plant to supply ice to the men of the Hashed al-Shaabi’s Ali al-Akbar brigade.
The Hashed is a military coalition of mainly Shiite fighters that was created to help in the Iraqi forces’ offensive aimed at eradicating the extremist Sunni IS from the country.
It was established in 2014 following a call by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani — the highest Shiite authority in Iraq — to counter a sweeping jihadist breakthrough.
Everywhere it has fought, the Hashed has been supplied daily by hundreds of vehicles loaded with equipment and food prepared by families in southern Iraq’s Shiite holy cities.
“We built this plant by ourselves, with our own hands,” says Sallal, dressed in impeccable military fatigues.
He and his men began by taking drinking water to fighters engaged in the long and murderous anti-IS campaign to retake Iraq’s second city Mosul, which fell in early July.
But that was before the full searing heat of summer descended on the desert.
When the drinking water began to boil, it was time for a rethink.
“We really needed ice, but it’s very expensive,” Sallal tells AFP.
New men joined the team and they started making their own.
Every day they supply 288 blocks of ice to the front to cover the brigade’s potable water needs.
And every day that means they require 13,000 litres (3,450 gallons) of water to make the ice. It is brought in both by tanker and in bottles.
One member of Sallal’s team is a 33-year-old ministry civil servant who took time off to fight as a member of the Hashed.
Ziad Abdel Wahid was wounded, but later rejoined the fight in a different role as an ice-maker.
“By doing this, on the logistics side, I can stay near the front,” he says.
Twice a day, at dawn and sunset, he loads pick-up trucks with ice for the trip north to Al-Ayadiah, the last remaining active front line near Tal Afar.
It’s exhausting work supplying the brigade.
“They need water and ice if they’re to fight and advance,” chips in his comrade Aref Ahmed, camouflage cap screwed firmly on to his head.