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Iraqi Forces Clash With Kurdish Fighters Near Kirkuk

16 Oct 2017 4:01 am
By Ali A. Nabhan in Erbil, Iraq, and Ben Kesling in Washington 

Iraqi forces clashed with fighters from the Kurdish semiautonomous region in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk early Monday, Iraqi and Kurdish officials said, in a standoff over Kurdish independence that threatens to unravel a multinational coalition battling Islamic State.

Before dawn, units from Iraq's Shiite-majority Popular Mobilization Forces as well as elite Iraqi military units moved toward the city of Kirkuk on the orders of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Kurdish Peshmerga troops reacted to the advances, provoking clashes before sunrise.

An Iraqi military official said four Iraqi army vehicles were burned in the clashes, and a number of injured had arrived at Kirkuk's general hospital. The Iraqi forces were passing through a village named Jerdaglu when an explosion destroyed the vehicles, he said. What caused the explosion wasn't immediately clear.

The clashes follow a referendum in which the Kurds, who run their own semiautonomous region in northern Iraq, voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence, defying Baghdad, regional powers and the U.S, which warned it would distract from the final battles to defeat Islamic State.

The fighting threatens to unravel the anti-Islamic State coalition, and poses risks to the viability of Iraq itself.

The Iraqi state is made up of Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs but also has a hodgepodge of other ethnic groups, including those with connections to neighboring Turkey and a large number with ties to Iran, all of which are jockeying for dominance. Analysts warn those centrifugal forces risk pulling Iraq apart, increasing its vulnerability to a re-emergence of Islamic State or a successor group.

"The one major fear of the U.S., that it will be forced to be a referee of post-ISIS Iraq, may come true," said Nicholas Heras, Middle East Security Fellow with Center for a New American Security, a Washington defense think tank. "If that's the case, it becomes a target more quickly."

While the U.S. has been reluctant to back any single party in Iraq, it now might have to pick a side, which will then make it the other group's enemy.

If the U.S. backs the Kurds, it will draw the ire of the central Iraqi government and the Iranian-backed militias. If it backs Iraq, it loses the support of Kurds who have proven capable and often loyal. If it remains neutral, it might just be pushing a simmering fight into the future.

The U.S. is hoping for an outcome that ends violence but leaves neither Erbil or Baghdad satisfied, which is a recipe for future conflicts," Mr. Heras said. "In post-ISIS Iraq, the U.S. has to decide what flavor of poison it prefers."

In the wake of the referendum, Iraq's parliament authorized Mr. Abadi to deploy troops to retake areas outside the official boundary of the semiautonomous Kurdistan region that have come under Kurdish control during the battle against Islamic State. Kurds have expanded the territory they oversee by as much as 40% during the fight.

The Kurds say much of that territory now under their control is subject to negotiation as to its future.

Baghdad has turned to Iran to help squeeze the Kurds. Turkey has also ratcheted up pressure. Both countries have their own restive Kurdish populations.

Based on a request by the Iraqi government, Iran closed the official border crossings with Kurdistan, a spokesman for the Iraqi foreign ministry said.

Meanwhile, Kurds have said travelers crossing into Turkey in the past few days were warned by Turkish authorities that they might not be able to cross back over the same land border.

Late Sunday, Mr. Abadi chaired a meeting for the Ministerial Council for National Security and his office released a statement detailing grievances by the Iraqi state against the Kurdish semiautonomous region.

The council warned of "the serious escalation and provocations by forces belonging to the Kurdistan region outside the borders of the region, which wants to drag the country into internal strife in order to achieve its goal of dismantling Iraq and the region in order to establish a state on an ethnic basis," according to a release after the meeting.

The council said the Kurds' decision to hold an independence referendum and lay claim to so-called disputed territories like Kirkuk showed the Kurdish government's "deliberate intention to resort to force and impose the status quo."

Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdish regional government's official representative to Washington, said, "We knew this was coming and this was imminent. It's still not too late to keep this from escalating."

She called on Mr. Abadi to consider the consequences of war and called on the White House to help mediate the matter, blaming much of this on Iranian influence over the Popular Mobilization Forces.

In the event of an all-out war, "Kurdistan will be hurt, but so will Iraq," she said. "No one can be a winner."

When asked if the violence and retribution against Kurdistan in the wake of the referendum has given the Kurds any regrets about moving forward with the controversial vote, Ms. Abdul Rahman said, "All of this confirms that there is no future for Kurdistan in Iraq."

Early Monday, Mr. Abadi's office said he had ordered Iraqi forces to "impose security in Kirkuk in cooperation with residents of Kirkuk and the Peshmerga forces."

A senior Iraqi security official said troops from the regular Iraqi Army, the elite Counterterrorism Service and the Emergency Response Division were advancing from the south and west of Kirkuk with no intention to enter the city but rather surround it and assert control over major oil fields and air bases that Kurdish forces claimed after the upheaval of 2014, when Islamic State helped reshape the map of Iraq and Syria.

As of early Monday, Iraq time, the Pentagon said it had no operational updates on reports of clashes between Iraqi government-affiliated units and Peshmerga forces in and around Kirkuk, though said it opposed any further escalation in the country and urged all groups to focus on defeating Islamic State.

"We oppose violence from any party, and urge against destabilizing actions that distract from the fight against ISIS and further undermine Iraq's stability," Defense Department spokeswoman Laura Seal said. "We continue to support a unified Iraq. Despite the Kurdistan regional government's unfortunate decision to pursue a unilateral referendum, dialogue remains the best option to defuse ongoing tensions and longstanding issues, in accordance with the Iraqi constitution."

Write to Ben Kesling at benjamin.kesling@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 16, 2017 00:01 ET (04:01 GMT)

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