The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has deployed 6,000 Peshmerga troops to the disputed Kirkuk region in Iraq, as Shiite militias have reportedly approached the city under the auspices of the government in Baghdad, which has rejected the KRG’s independence referendum.
The Shiite, Iran-backed militia in question, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), has reportedly significantly expanded its presence near Kirkuk. Kurdish officials warned of intelligence suggesting a “major attack” on Kirkuk on Thursday and have since greatly increased the number of Peshmerga troops in the region.
“We are alarmed by the significant Iraqi military and Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) build up in Bashir and Taz, south of Kirkuk, including tanks, heavy artillery, humvees, and mortars. These forces are approximately 3 kilometers from Peshmerga front line positions. Intelligence shows intent to take over nearby oil fields, airport, and military base,” the Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) said in a statement released Friday morning. “We call on the Iraqi Government to stop the PMF aggression in Kirkuk and North Mosul.”
While the PMF have been legally integrated into the Iraqi armed forces, they operated for years as rogue militias under the auspices of Iran. While they have fought the Islamic State, they have repeatedly insisted that they would abandon any fight against the Sunni jihadist group if given the opportunity to kill American troops, instead.
Reuters reports that the Kurdish government in Erbil has mobilized 6,000 Peshmerga troops since Thursday to amass in the Kirkuk area, citing KRG vice president Kosrat Rasul. Reuters notes that the number of Kurdish forces there was already in the “tens of thousands.” Peshmerga have also reportedly retreated from certain areas on the Kirkuk border where they had already maintained a light presence to reorganize elsewhere.
Rasul, the Kurdish outlet Rudaw notes, is a Peshmerga commander himself and is organizing troops in the region. “We are not afraid of anyone’s threats, because the Peshmerga, as it is evident from it is name, means dying for victory,” he said in a statement (“peshmerga” is a Kurdish word meaning “those who face death”).
Another Peshmerga commander, Shiekh Jaafar, issued a statement to reporters assuring the residents of Kirkuk that they would not allow a violent takeover by the Iraqi government and would defend civilians regardless of their ethnic background.
“We promise the people of Kirkuk, and this area, that the Peshmerga forces will be their defenders. We will fight to the last person and will not allow the enemy to enter any of these areas,” he said, according to Rudaw.
Kirkuk is an ethnically diverse city of Turkmens, Arabs, and Kurds that falls outside of the traditional parameters of what is known as Kurdistan. The Peshmerga took Kirkuk over from the Baghdad government in 2014 after the Islamic State attacked the oil-rich province. The Peshmerga stepped in and eradicated ISIS when the Iraqi military fled, and Iraq now demands the KRG return Kirkuk to its governance but has demanded the Peshmerga stay to keep it safe from jihadi attacks.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi dismissed all KRG statements as “fake news” on Twitter today:
Our armed forces cannot and will not attack our citizens, whether Arab or Kurd. The fake news being spread has a deplorable agenda behind it
— Haider Al-Abadi (@HaiderAlAbadi) October 13, 2017
Abadi has refused any dialogue with the KRG over the referendum, calling it “unconstitutional,” and has demanded the KRG hand over control of all its borders and ports of entry to the Iraqi government.