IRBIL, IRAQ —
Thousands of Kurdish Peshmerga forces have deployed in Iraq's disputed oil city of Kirkuk and local residents are on edge, fearing a military advance despite Iraqi announcements that an attack is not imminent.
“Some civilians are out on the streets with their guns,” said Dara Saieed, a local journalist in Kirkuk, which is currently controlled by Kurdish authorities but claimed by both Iraq's central government in Baghdad and regional Kurdish leadership based in the city of Irbil. “People are nervous.”
Kurdish leaders say Iraqi forces, including Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), a massive fighting force primarily made up of former Shia militia groups, have gathered in Iraqi-controlled areas near the city of Kirkuk and its oil fields and airport.
Iraqi leaders say they have no plan to attack the city and they are simply asserting authority they already have over the region.
“There will be no war on our citizens anywhere,” tweeted Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi on Friday.
However, if Iraqi forces enter Kurdish-controlled territories, Peshmerga will consider it an act of aggression, according to Peshmerga Colonel Hemn Hassan Salih. “If they come in without permission, it is sign of war, nothing else,” he said in a phone interview from his base in Kirkuk on Friday.
Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces have been fighting as allies against Islamic State militants, and the U.S.-lead coalition has said it fears disputes between Baghdad and Irbil could distract from the fight. But some soldiers say the stand-off could simply be posturing ahead of negotiations for a diplomatic solution.
“There won’t be a battle,” said Iraqi Special Forces Major Assad al-Assady while on a mission to fight IS in West Anbar Province on Friday. “This is a political problem and it will be solved with dialogue.”
Negotiations would be the best solution for all sides, agreed Peshmerga Captain Taher Aziz, while manning a Kurdistan Region border in Khazir province. But without international involvement, he said, conflict may be inevitable, no matter what Iraq’s central leadership in Baghdad says.
“The PMU leadership may give orders that are not the same as the ones coming from the central leadership,” Aziz explained.
Tensions mount amid base dispute
The Iraqi military said it has taken one Peshmerga base in the Kirkuk area but the movement is “a normal entry of federal forces,” not an act of war.
Peshmerga leaders say they left the base to ease tensions early Friday morning. It was a temporary fighting position against Islamic State militants they had defeated two-and-half years ago, according to Peshmerga Colonel Salih.
“We wanted to pull back to appear less threatening and give them space,” he explained, “But the PMUs took advantage and closed in.” As of Friday afternoon, he said, the city remained calm, adding, “but we will not be patient forever.”
As a semi-autonomous region, Iraq's Kurdish region has maintained its own borders for more than 25 years, with Iraqi forces only entering with permission of Kurdish authorities. In late September, Kurdish voters passed an independence referendum by more than 92 percent over the objections of Baghdad and the international community. Since then the region has become increasingly isolated, with international flights grounded and other sanctions imposed.
An Iraqi army technical team released a statement on Friday saying, “Our forces have the right to enter any province in Iraq,” but have thus far not crossed into Kurdish-controlled territory.