Baghdad reportedly seeks to take back control of the oil-rich Kirkuk area from the Kurdish regional government [File: AFP]
The Kurdish Regional Government has deployed thousands of troops around the disputed oil city of Kirkuk for fear of an attack by Iraqi government army and militia, a senior official said.
“Thousands of heavily armed Peshmerga units are now completely in their positions around Kirkuk,” a top aide to Kurdistan regional president Masoud Barzani posted on social media on Friday.
“Their order is to defend at any cost,” Hemin Hawrami said.
The alert came after the Kurdish authorities accused the Iraqi government of massing forces in readiness for a reported offensive to seize Kurdish-held oil fields around Kirkuk, as tensions soar after a vote for independence last month.
They accused the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) – paramilitary units dominated by Iran-trained Shia militia – of massing fighters in two mainly Shia Turkmen areas south of Kirkuk in a bid to provoke a confrontation.
Sources in Kirkuk also confirmed to Al Jazeera the movement of Iraqi forces in two fronts in Kirkuk.
In some areas, the Iraqi forces have moved two to three kilometres from Kurdish Peshmerga positions, Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford reported from Erbil.
Hawrami urged the international community to intervene and call on Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to “order PMF to pull back if he can or if they listen to him”.
“No escalation from our side. Just defend and roll them back if they attack,” the senior adviser to Barzani said.
The surge in tensions comes two weeks after Kurdish voters overwhelmingly backed independence in a non-binding referendum that the federal government condemned as illegal.
Polling was held in the three provinces that have long formed an autonomous Kurdish region as well as neighbouring areas, including Kirkuk, that Kurdish forces seized from the Islamic State of the Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group during the fightback against the armed group’s 2014 offensive through areas north and west of Baghdad.
Kirkuk province is the location of northern Iraq’s main oil fields and, even though far more crude is now pumped from the south, it is bitterly disputed between Baghdad and the Kurds.
Baghdad continues to reject decades-old Kurdish ambitions to incorporate Kirkuk and other historically Kurdish-majority areas in their autonomous region.
SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies