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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Kurds put forces on alert for Iraq attack near Kirkuk

"Their order is to defend at any cost" — top Kurdistan official

Kurdish authorities deployed thousands of fighters around the disputed oil city of Kirkuk on Friday for fear of an attack by Iraqi government troops and militia, a senior official said.

"Thousands of heavily armed peshmerga units are now completely in their positions around Kirkuk," Hemin Hawrami, a top aide to Kurdistan regional president Masoud Barzani said on Twitter. "Their order is to defend at any cost."

The alert came after the Kurdish authorities accused the Iraqi government of massing forces in readiness for an offensive to seize Kurdish-held oilfields around Kirkuk, as tensions soar after a vote for independence on September 25.

They accused the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) — paramilitary units dominated by Iran-trained Shiite militia — of massing fighters in two mainly Shiite Turkmen areas south of Kirkuk in a bid to provoke a confrontation.

Mr 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 Barzani adviser added.

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 ISIL during the fightback against the jihadists' 2014 offensive through areas north and west of Baghdad.

Baghdad continues to reject decades-old Kurdish ambitions to incorporate Kirkuk and other historically Kurdish-majority areas into their autonomous region.

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