Iraqi and Kurdish forces clash as Baghdad advance continues

Fighting risks escalating crisis that pits two of US’s main regional allies against each other

Kurdish peshmarga near Altun Kupri, between Kirkuk and Erbil, Iraq on Friday.  The area is considered part of the “disputed territories” claimed by both Kurds and Baghdad. Photograph: Azad Lashkari/Reuters

Kurdish peshmarga near Altun Kupri, between Kirkuk and Erbil, Iraq on Friday. The area is considered part of the “disputed territories” claimed by both Kurds and Baghdad. Photograph: Azad Lashkari/Reuters

 

Iraqi forces clashed with Kurdish peshmerga on Friday south of Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan, as they completed their takeover of the disputed, oil-rich Kirkuk province.

The fighting erupted around Altun Kupri, a town controlled for years by the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), and risks escalating a crisis that pits two of the US’s main regional allies against each other.

The Kurdistan Regional Security Council said in a statement on Twitter that US weaponry was being used in the attack – Washington has armed and trained both the Iraqi army and the peshmerga.

Altun Kupri lies 60km south of Erbil and had been jointly administered by the KRG and Baghdad since the US-led invasion in 2003 toppled the late dictator Saddam Hussein’s regime. But it is considered part of the “disputed territories” claimed by both sides.

Iraqi forces began retaking the contested areas on Monday, in retaliation for the KRG’s decision to hold an independence referendum last month despite strong opposition from Baghdad, the US and regional powers. The advance still appears to be aimed at retaking only disputed territories, but the eruption of clashes risks further conflict in an area where for the past three years, the two sides had fought alongside each other as part of a US-led international coalition to fight Islamic State.

Videos of the fighting from peshmerga berms near the area showed Kurdish fighters in a heavy exchange of gun and mortar fire with Iraqi forces.

“The Kurds’ fears of Iraq were never unwarranted. The attacks are a confirmation of that. It has also destroyed the post-2003 political project,” said one KRG official. “The Kurds cannot be expected to return to Iraq after the attacks.”

Withdrawal

Iraqi forces have been retaking territories held by the Kurds since 2014, when, under the support of the US-led international coalition, they took control of vast swaths of disputed territory during the war on Islamic State. The peshmerga forces withdrew this week from nearly all those areas without a fight, except for some clashes when Iraqi forces first moved into the city of Kirkuk.

Local Kurdish journalists in the area of Altun Kupri said units of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, militias that includes factions backed by Iran, were fighting alongside Iraqi forces in Friday’s clashes. If their presence is confirmed, it would signal that Baghdad has ignored Washington’s requests that PMF forces do not participate.

Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi had publicly ordered the withdrawal of all but federal military and police forces two days earlier.

US officials have said they stressed to the premier he should not allow forces to enter formal KRG territory. They have also tried to urge no further advances, but acknowledged Baghdad had a right to extend its control over any federal, disputed territories.

The PMF’s role in the advances has outraged Kurds. They have criticised Washington, which stood by as Iraqi forces moved on Kirkuk, for allowing even more Iraqi territory to fall to Iran’s influence. US officials denied that the PMF presence had played a big role in the offensive, but regional analysts say Iran has clearly been influential in what risks becoming a larger confrontation.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017