x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 25 November 2017

Iranian general Qassem Soleimani visits Iraqi Kurdistan amid standoff with Baghdad

Kurdish leaders stand by independence referendum and vow to fight back if Iraqi forces attack

Members of the Iraqi forces stand next to rocket launchers in a convoy heading towards Kurdish peshmerga positions on the southern outskirts of Kirkuk on October 15, 2017. Ahmad Al Rubaye / AFP
Members of the Iraqi forces stand next to rocket launchers in a convoy heading towards Kurdish peshmerga positions on the southern outskirts of Kirkuk on October 15, 2017. Ahmad Al Rubaye / AFP

The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's overseas operations held talks with Iraqi Kurdish officials on Sunday amid an escalating crisis between Baghdad and Erbil in the wake of last month's independence referendum.

The visit to Iraq by Major General Qassem Soleimani comes as thousands of government troops and allied fighters of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) militias are in a standoff with Kurdish forces in the disputed oil-rich province of Kirkuk.

On Sunday, Kurdish fighters rejected warnings from PMU forces to withdraw from a strategic junction in southern Kirkuk, which controls the access to some of the region's main oilfields.

Maj Gen Soleimani heads the Quds Force, which has provided training and weapons to the predominantly Shiite PMU militias to fight against ISIL after the extremist group seized large areas of northern and western Iraq in 2014.

Kirkuk, home to Iraqi Arabs, Turkmen, Christians and Kurds, has emerged as a flashpoint in the crisis between Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region, as it is claimed by both sides. The city has been held by Kurdish forces who recaptured it from ISIL in 2014 and was included in Iraqi Kurdistan's independence vote last month even though it is not part of the Kurdish region.

"Tensions are very high in Kirkuk, we were expecting clashes to occur last night," Arshad Al Salhi, a member of the Iraqi parliament and head of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, told The National.

He was referring to unconfirmed reports that Iraqi government had set a 2am deadline on Sunday for Kurdish forces in Kirkuk to withdraw.

"In order for the crisis to be resolved, a joint and equal administration of Kirkuk's mixed ethnic components must be set up," Mr Al Salhi said.

"Kirkuk's oilfields must also be handed back to Baghdad's central government — it's also important to express that the security of Iraq must be in the hands of the federal state and its security forces."

Maj Gen Soleimani arrived in the Iraqi Kurdish region on Saturday and visited the tomb of former Iraqi president and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party leader Jalal Talabani, who died on October 3 after years of poor health.

"It has been important for Iran to pay respect to Mr Talabani. Amid the Kurdish referendum tensions, [Iranian] foreign minister Javad Zarif attended the funeral and now even Mr Soleimani paid his tribute personally. We should welcome the fact that even Iranian military men are trying to keep up direct communication instead of letting these tensions escalate further," said Adnan Tabatabai, head of Carpo, a Germany-based think tank.

"As long as talks happen on the ground I believe further escalation can be prevented," he told The National.

Fanar Haddad, senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore, said Maj Gen Soleimani's visit was a testament to the extent of the Iranian general's influence in Iraq.

"Soleimani's visit shows — as if it needed showing — that he remains one of the primary powerbrokers in Iraq. It seems that whenever Iraq approaches breaking point, as happened in 2014 and now in 2017, Iran sends its man in Iraq to try to sort out the situation," Mr Haddad said.

Kurdish leaders on Sunday rejected what they described as "military threats" from Iraqi forces against Kurdish fighters, and pledged to defend Kurdish-held territory in case of an attack.

The statement was issued after a meeting between Iraqi Kurdish president Masoud Barzani, Iraqi president Fuad Masum, and Hero Talabani, the widow of Jalal Talabani.

They also rejected the Iraqi government's demand that they cancel the result of the independence referendum, which was overwhelmingly in favour, as a precondition for talks to resolve the dispute.

The Kurdistan Regional Government's minister of foreign relations, Mustafa Falah told The National that a "military confrontation will not solve the problem. It will further escalate tensions and complicate the situation."

"The Kurdish leadership has been calling for dialogue, negotiations and for direct talks with Baghdad for a very long time. Baghdad has refused to sit with us on the negotiation table and will therefore be responsible for any further escalation of tensions," he said.

Mr Falah called negotiations to be held without preconditions and for both sides to "act soon before it’s too late to sort out our political differences".

"These current tensions are an unnecessary escalation of disputes, and what we need at this stage is logic and rationality to prevail," he said.

Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi has said there can be no further discussion of the Kurds' long-standing demand to incorporate Kirkuk and other historically Kurdish-majority areas into their autonomous region until the independence vote is annulled.

However, he has insisted that he was "not going to make war on our Kurdish citizens".