Kurdish forces refuse to quit Iraq battlefield province
Sulaimaniya, Iraq (AFP) — Kurdish commanders Wednesday refused orders to pull their troops out of Kurdish-populated areas of ethnically divided Diyala province, challenging the authority of Baghdad.
The 4,000 strong brigade will withdraw only when ordered to do so by the president of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq, Massud Barzani, its commander General Nazel Kirkuki told AFP.
"The commander of Iraqi ground forces, General Ali Ghidan, asked us to withdraw our forces from the north of Diyala province on August 10 but we've received no order from the presidency of autonomous Kurdistan," Kirkuki said.
"We have a brigade deployed in the Saadiya, Qara Tapa and Jalawla districts and we are not budging because so far we've received no orders from the (Kurdish regional) presidency to withdraw."
The so-called peshmerga troops made up of former Kurdish rebels have never been integrated into the Iraqi army and continue to operate under the command of the autonomous regional government that holds sway in Iraq's three far northern provinces.
But with US backing, the disciplined and battle hardened troops have deployed elsewhere in Iraq to support the army in its efforts to capture Sunni Arab insurgents, particularly those loyal to Al-Qaeda.
"We came to take part in restoring order in the region and since then we've joined numerous operations with US and Iraqi forces," Kirkuki said.
The deployment of Iraqi troops in the northern districts of Diyala province is sensitive as they are Kurdish-inhabited and Kurdish leaders have long sought to incorporate them into the autonomous region which they border.
Long regarded as Iraq's most dangerous province, Diyala's volatile ethnic mix of Sunni Arabs, Shiite Arabs and Shiite Kurds has proved fertile ground for insurgents loyal to Al-Qaeda in one of their main strongholds.
Regular Iraqi security forces began a major offensive against Al-Qaeda in the province involving 50,000 soldiers and police on July 29, although two suicide bombers have struck there since Monday.
The province is just one of a number of areas where longstanding Kurdish claims have drawn opposition from their Arab neighbours.
"There are meetings between Kurds and the Ministry of Defence to find a solution to the problem," said top Kurdish official Jaafar al-Sheikh Mustafa, minister for peshmerga affairs.
The refusal to withdraw troops is the latest act of defiance by the Kurdish authorities since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The regional government has signed 15 exploration and export contracts with 20 international companies since it passed its own oil law a year ago, infuriating the Baghdad government, which says they are illegal.
The Kurds also have ambitions to nearly double their territory from 40,000 square kilometres (15,400 square miles) to 78,000 square kilometres (30,100 square miles), according to the Kurdish government's website.
That would represent 18 percent of Iraq, a huge area stretching from the borders with Syria and Turkey to the region of Kut, 175 kilometres (109 miles) southeast of Baghdad, and include oil rich province of Kirkuk in the north.
Concerns among Arabs and Turkmen about Kurdish claims to northern oil province of Kirkuk was the main factor behind the Iraqi parliament's failure to adopt a provincial election law in time for polls to go ahead as planned in October.
The Kurds have also historically laid claim to parts of Nineveh, the province centred on the main northern city of Mosul.
"Our leaders are afraid that if the Iraqi army has deployed in the province of Diyala, it has further ambition to do so in the regions of Kirkuk and Mosul where we have forces," said a Kurdish official in Sulaimaniyah.
With 70,000 soldiers, the peshmergas are deployed in the Kurdish region, in northern Diyala and north-east of Mosul. In Kirkuk, the "Assaich" or security forces depend on two backing of the two Kurdish political parties.