Vastavam web: Thousands of Iraqi troops were locked in an armed standoff with Kurdish forces in the disputed oil province of Kirkuk today as Washington scrambled to avert fighting between the key allies in the war against the Islamic State group.The clock was ticking down to 2300 GMT today deadline that the Kurds say Baghdad has set for their forces to surrender positions they took during the fightback against the jihadists over the past three years.On the opposite bank, Kurdish peshmerga fighters were visible behind an earthen embankment topped with concrete blocks painted with the red, white green and yellow of the Kurdish flag.
The two sides have been at loggerheads since the Kurds voted overwhelmingly for independence in a September 25 referendum that Baghdad rejected as illegal.Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said there can be no further discussion of the Kurds’ longstanding demands to incorporate Kirkuk and other historically Kurdish-majority areas in their autonomous region until the independence vote is annulled.But thousands of heavily armed troops and members of the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) — paramilitary units largely made up of Iran-trained Shiite militias — have massed around Kirkuk.
They have already retaken a string of positions to the south of the city after Kurdish forces withdrew.”The deadline set for the peshmerga to return to their pre-June 6, 2014 positions will expire during the night,” a senior Kurdish official told AFP, asking not to be identified.The June 2014 lines are those that the Kurds held before Islamic State group (IS) fighters swept through vast areas north and west of Baghdad, prompting many Iraqi army units to disintegrate and Kurdish forces to step in.
The Kurds currently control the city of Kirkuk and three major oil fields in the province which account for a significant share of the regional government’s oil revenues.”Everybody stay focused on defeating ISIS. We can’t turn on each other right now. We don’t want to go to a shooting situation,” he added, using an alternative acronym for IS.Last week, the Iraqi army retook the Sunni Arab insurgent bastion of Hawija, the last town in Kirkuk province in IS hands, but there has been fighting in the countryside since.In the mainly Shiite Turkmen town of Tuz Khurmatu in neighbouring Salaheddin province, three PMF paramilitaries and two Kurdish peshmerga were wounded in a firefight overnight, town council spokesman Shalal Abdul said.