Iraqi forces retake Kurdish-held territory near Mosul

US urges Baghdad government to stop offensive

Iraqi forces have retaken Kurdish-controlled areas near Mosul, even as Washington urged Baghdad to rein in its offensive in northern Iraq.

Kurdish Peshmerga troops withdrew without a fight from the areas, including Mosul Dam, as the Iraqi soldiers moved in, the military said in a statement on Wednesday.

The latest move by Baghdad will fuel concerns that the advance risks escalating the crisis between two of the US’s main allies in the region – Iraq and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

“Our message is the same to both sides – we are urging them to reduce tensions, de-escalate, co-ordinate and find areas where they can talk about things to prevent military confrontation,” a senior US official said.


Washington is also concerned about the role of factions within the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a paramilitary force backed by Tehran and which was part of the push into Kirkuk, the disputed oil-rich city, this week. Analysts say Iran – the most influential regional power in Iraq – could use the crisis to increase its foothold in the country at the expense of the US.

“We do have concerns about having PMF in those areas and would like those to be pulled for more regular Iraqi forces to take over,” the US official said. “We recognise the federal government’s prerogative in re-establishing a presence in the areas they’ve taken back. But we also need to know there is a limit that he [Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi] has placed on these movements.

Oilfields and military sites

The KRG, which governs Iraqi Kurdistan, has lost control of a swath of territory over the past three days, including oilfields and military sites, as Baghdad has ramped up the pressure on Kurdish authorities in retaliation for a contentious independence referendum last month. The KRG had controlled areas claimed by both Baghdad and Kurdistan since 2014 when the Iraqi army melted away following Islamic State’s blitz through northern Iraq.

Washington spent years and millions of dollars arming and training both the Peshmerga and Iraq’s military to help in the battle against the jihadi group, which has since lost most of its territory in the country. The concern is that the crisis between the two will hinder efforts to flush out the remaining Islamic State militants.

“Our effort was to make sure that while the prime minister responded to the referendum, he did it on a non-violent basis,” the US official said.

The KRG went ahead with the poll despite deep opposition from Iraq, the US, Turkey and Iran. It included many disputed territories in the vote, further inflaming tensions.

Strategic areas

The rapid advance by Iraqi forces now means the KRG has lost many of the strategic areas it could have used as bargaining chips in any future negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil, capital of the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region.

Mr Abadi had called for dialogue on Tuesday, declaring that the Kurdish independence referendum was “over”.

“The illegal referendum is over, its results invalid and belongs in the past. We call for dialogue based on Iraq’s national constitution,” Mr Abadi said. But the prime minister has also vowed to reassert control over the areas the Iraqi army lost three years ago, and his forces have pushed into areas held by Kurds since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, the late Iraqi dictator.

Kurdish media reported that Germany’s foreign minister had also called on Mr Abadi to halt all military advances.

"In this explosive situation, we call on all parties to be prudent and speak directly; military action must be stopped immediately and further escalation measures avoided," said a statement from Berlin, according to the Kurdish news channel Rudaw. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017