Kurdish Peshmerga forces are digging what officials say are security trenches in areas bordering territory controlled by the Islamic State (IS).
But the Iraqi government is concerned that the Kurds may be attempting to set up a de-facto Kurdish border as part of a process towards independence from Iraq. The trenches will stretch 652 miles from northern areas of Mosul to Khanaqin in Diyala province.
General Murad Muhammed, a Peshmerga commander in Kirkuk, told VOA that the trenches will be used as a defensive line to protect newly liberated areas from retaliatory IS attacks.
“This trench will protect the area from the Daesh bats (IS fighters) who want to invade Kurdistan,” Muhammed said.
Across the Peshmerga frontlines, excavators and bulldozers can be seen digging ditches three meters wide and three meters deep.
“These trenches will prevent the terrorists from sneaking in car bombs to our frontlines,” the Kurdish commander in Diyala, Lieutenant-Colonel Sirwan Muhammad, told VOA.
IS has been using car bombs against the Kurds who lack sophisticated weapons to destroy armored trucks filled with explosives and driven by suicide bombers.
The trenches are in areas known as “disputed territories.” The disputed territories are in northern Iraq, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which both the central government of Iraq and the Kurds claim.
The Iraqi constitution mandated that a referendum take place to determine the future of the disputed territories. But no referendum has been held.
When the IS swept into Mosul in June 2014, the Iraqi army abandoned the disputed territories around IS-held areas. Kurdish Peshmerga gained full control of the areas and declared it will not withdraw.
Saad Yosif al-Muttalibi, the head of the Iraqi parliament’s defense committee, told VOA that Kurds are taking political advantage of the IS threat to Iraq.
“The Kurdistan region uses its defense against IS as a justification to dig the trenches,” he told VOA. “We don’t think this is to defend against IS. We think this is to separate Kurdistan from Iraq and it’s an attempt by Masoud Barzani [the president of Kurdistan region] to declare Kurdish independence.”
Kurdish trenches also worry the Shi’ite paramilitaries known as Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) who have had armed confrontation with the Kurdish Peshmerga over the control of southern Kirkuk and northern Diyala.
Abu Munazir Khanaqini, the commander of Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces in Diyala told VOA that digging the trenches is not necessary because IS is not present in the area.
“We are doubtful of Peshmerga's real intentions behind this effort,” he said. “We believe it is an effort by them to separate the area they control from other parts of Iraq controlled by us.”
'Borders of Kurdistan'
Muhammed Faiq, the spokesman for the mayor of the town of Tuz Khurmatu, told VOA the trenches would work as a separation of the Kurdish lands from Iraq.
“These [trenches] will determine the borders of Kurdistan,” he said.
In recent months, there have been skirmishes between Shi’ite forces and the Peshmerga near Tuz Khurmatu over the building of the trenches.
“Hashd al-Shabi (Arabic for PMF) fired at Peshmerga and its excavators while [we were] digging the trenches,” said Colonel Jmhur Rostam, a Peshmerga commander in the area. “We responded. But no one was killed from either side and talks started to avoid further escalation.”
Kurdish commanders say they reject Iraqi accusations over the trenches.
“These trenches are not to separate Kurdish territories from Iraq,” Jabar Yawar, the Peshmerga chief of staff, told VOA. “The trenches are 60 kilometers (38 miles) away from Kurdish borders with the rest of Iraq and we use them to defend Peshmerga frontlines from IS suicide attacks.”
Anwar reported from Kirkuk and Hussein from Washington.