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Iraqi, Kurdish Forces Battle for Remaining Disputed Territories


Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers observe the ongoing battle on Oct. 20, 2017, in Altun Kobri, a disputed area of northern Iraq. (H.Murdock/VOA)

As night fell Friday, Kurdish Peshmerga tanks fired heavy artillery into the now-Iraqi held town of Altun Kopri while gunfire cracked at the town's entrance.

Kurdish civilian volunteers scattered from behind a nearby berm as journalists’ cars raced out of the line of fire. Vehicles holding Kurdish fighters raced forward.

Iraqi and Kurdish forces had been battling since early morning, after Iraqi forces advanced north out of Kirkuk, an oil city they took over in the past week, toward the Kurdish capital, Irbil.

WATCH: Heavy Fighting Continues Into Night by Yomi Kleinmann

Baghdad said it intends to occupy all disputed lands, returning the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region to its more constrained 2003 borders. Some fighters and civilians on the Kurdish side fear Baghdad wants to move even further, including into Irbil. Others said Baghdad is unlikely to move into areas that have been self-governing for more than 25 years.

"Some Iraqi soldiers on the ground may want to fight into Irbil," said Ari Harsin, a member of the Kurdistan parliament who volunteers fighting on the front lines with Peshmerga soldiers. "But the people up top, the ones who know, won’t do it. That fight would not benefit anyone."

Civilian volunteers and soldiers observe mortars and other artillery landing on both sides of the conflict on Oct. 20, 2017 in Altun Kobri, a disputed area of northern Iraq. (H.Murdock/VOA)
Civilian volunteers and soldiers observe mortars and other artillery landing on both sides of the conflict on Oct. 20, 2017 in Altun Kobri, a disputed area of northern Iraq. (H.Murdock/VOA)

Disputed lands

The areas Iraqi forces are moving into were mostly under Baghdad’s control in 2014, when Islamic State militants swept into the region. Kurdish Peshmerga and coalition forces recaptured the lands and the Kurdistan Region has since held them.

The Iraqi leadership said it is retaking areas to establish federal authority after a controversial Kurdish referendum for independence in September threatened the nation's unity. More than 92 percent of Kurds in Iraq voted "yes" in a vote Baghdad called illegal and the international community leaders said was dangerous and ill-timed.

"I am required to act in accordance with the Constitution to protect all of the Iraqi people and to keep our country united," wrote Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in a New York Times opinion article on Wednesday. "To do so, the government has reinforced and restored what is prescribed in its federal mandate: that is, federal authority over national borders, oil exports and customs revenues."

Both Baghdad and Irbil have called for dialogue, but with opposing requirements. Baghdad demands Kurdistan recognize national unity to move forward, while Irbil demands negotiations recognizing the Kurdistan Region's path to independence.

"I call on the Kurdish Regional Government to acknowledge the authority of the Constitution and to enter dialogue on this basis," Abadi wrote in the article.

"Those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for Kurdistan have not been lost in vain," said Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Region, in a statement a day earlier. "And the same shall be true for those who voted for an independent Kurdistan."

Peshmerga soldiers largely retreated from Kirkuk a week ago, but on Oct. 20, 2017 the armed force fought fiercely to maintain their lines outside Altun Kobri, a disputed area of northern Iraq. (H.Murdock/VOA)
Peshmerga soldiers largely retreated from Kirkuk a week ago, but on Oct. 20, 2017 the armed force fought fiercely to maintain their lines outside Altun Kobri, a disputed area of northern Iraq. (H.Murdock/VOA)

Families fleeing

But for families in Irbil, the prospect of the fight moving to the 2003 border is frightening, as that would put Iraqi forces about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from the city.

At a checkpoint near the front line, Ahmed Mohammad, a 37-year-old farmer and father of four, said when Iraqi forces moved into Kirkuk last week, his family fled the city with nothing, and is now packed into a house with other families, 16 to a room.

"The children are getting sick from overcrowding," Mohammad said. "My heart is broken for Kirkuk."

More than 60,000 people have been displaced by fighting in the past week, according to the United Nations, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has said the number is 100,000. It is unclear how many have already returned to their homes in places of relative calm, like Kirkuk.

Peshmerga soldier Seehat Selman, right, says he is deeply disturbed that the international community, particularly the U.S. has not stepped in to help the Kurdistan Region in this battle on Oct. 20, 2017 in Altun Kobri, a disputed area of northern Iraq. (H.Murdock/VOA)
Peshmerga soldier Seehat Selman, right, says he is deeply disturbed that the international community, particularly the U.S. has not stepped in to help the Kurdistan Region in this battle on Oct. 20, 2017 in Altun Kobri, a disputed area of northern Iraq. (H.Murdock/VOA)

Deep disappointment

On the edges of the battle on Friday, some soldiers waited for deployment to the front, others guarded key points or manned artillery, firing deep behind Iraqi lines. Some soldiers said they were angry, others said they were deeply disappointed.

The international community in general and the United States in particular had supported them in their fight against Islamic State militants. They did not expect to be abandoned in this fight, they said.

"They are using American weapons to fight us," said Seehat Selman, a Peshmerga soldier, shortly after returning to a base from the battle. "We fought back IS. Many of our soldiers died in that fight."

Selman's family, he said, were refugees from the government of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. "And now they are trying to make us refugees again," he said.

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