BAGHDAD, Oct 24, (Agencies): Iraqi pro-government paramilitaries launched an offensive against Kurdish troops on Tuesday near the Turkish frontier, pushing towards a strategic border crossing and oil export pipeline hub that Baghdad says must come under its control.
The Iraqi government has transformed the balance of power in the north of the country since launching a campaign last week to seize back territory from the Kurds, who govern an autonomous region of three northern provinces and had also seized a swathe of other territory in northern Iraq.
The Kurds held a referendum on independence last month that Baghdad called illegal. Baghdad responded by seizing back the city of Kirkuk, the oil-producing areas around it, and other territory that the Kurds had captured from Islamic State. Prime Minister Haidar Abadi has ordered his army to recapture all disputed territory, and has also demanded central control of Iraq’s border crossings with Turkey, all of which are inside the Kurdish autonomous region itself.
A Kurdish official said Kurdish security forces known as Peshmerga had successfully beaten back an advance by Iranian- backed pro-government paramilitaries in the region of Rabi’a, 40 kms (25 miles) south of the Fish-Khabur border area. Fish-Khabur is strategically vital because oil from both Kurdish and government-held parts of northern Iraq cross at a pipeline there into Turkey, the main route out of the area for international export, crucial for any Kurdish independence bid. The fighting so far has taken place outside the Kurdish autonomous region, but Fish- Khabur is located within it, so any assault on the border crossing would mark a major escalation, bringing government troops into undisputed Kurdish territory.
An Iraqi military spokesman denied there had been any clashes in the area. But an Iraqi security source in Baghdad and a rights activist in northwest Iraq said the confrontation had started at dawn and was still going on by midday. “Peshmerga repelled the attack and pushed Popular Mobilisation back in to Rabi’a,” tweeted KRG President Masoud Barzani’s media advisor, Hemin Hawrami. A military spokesman in Baghdad said in response: “There are no clashes.”
The fighting between the central government and the Kurds is particularly tricky for the United States which is close allies of both sides, arming and training both the Kurds and the central government’s army to fight against Islamic State. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Baghdad this week, but Abadi rebuffed his call for Iraq to reject the role of Iran-backed Shi’ite paramilitaries that fight alongside government troops and have taken a hard line on the Kurds. On Monday, an official of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) security council said Iraqi government forces and Iranian-backed Popular Mobilisation paramilitaries were deploying tanks and artillery in Rabi’a, northwest of Mosul.
An Iraqi government security advisor said on Monday Baghdad aimed to bring the three-way border crossing with Turkey and Syria at Fish-Khabur under its control, but he declined to say if a military move was being prepared. Meanwhile, parliament in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region decided Tuesday to hold legislative elections in eight months after they were delayed amid tensions with the central government in Baghdad over disputed territories. Regional legislative and presidential elections had both been due on Nov 1 but were postponed after Baghdad seized a swathe of territory from Kurdish forces following a controversial independence vote. There was no immediate word on a new date for a presidential election. “The Kurdistan parliament decided … to postpone the parliamentary elections in the autonomous region by eight months,” Islamic Union of Kurdistan parliamentarian Bahzad Zebari told AFP. Farsat Sofiof the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of long-time Kurdish leader Massud Barzani said parliament would now choose a new date for legislative and presidential elections.
The elections were originally set for just over a month after a Sept 25 referendum in the Kurdish areas which resulted in a massive “yes” for independence. But the referendum, set in motion by Barzani, was strongly opposed by Baghdad. Last week, Iraqi forces swept into the oil-rich northern province of Kirkuk, restoring it and Kurdish-held parts of Nineveh and Diyala provinces to central government control. The rapid Kurdish retreat triggered recriminations among Kurdish politicians and prompted the regional parliament to suspend both elections. Jihadists from the Islamic State group and fighters from Iraq’s Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary coalition were locked in fierce clashes near Mosul Tuesday, with nearly 30 reported dead, the coalition said. Mosul, Iraq’s second city, was retaken from IS in July after a massive months-long offensive. “Waad Allah forces are repelling an IS attack southwest of Mosul in the Hatra desert” some 100 kms (60 miles) southwest of Mosul, said a spokesman for the Hashed unit. The Hashed is an umbrella group of paramilitary auxiliaries formed in 2014 to support Iraqi regular forces after IS swept across swathes of northern Iraq.