BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Kurdish Peshmerga fighters rejected a warning from an Iraqi paramilitary force to withdraw from a strategic junction south of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, a Kurdish security official told Reuters on Sunday.
Popular Mobilisation, formed mainly by Iranian-trained Shi’ite groups, gave the Peshmerga until midnight local time (2100 GMT Saturday) to leave a position north of the Maktab Khalid junction, the official from the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Security Council said.
The position controls the access to an airbase and some of the oilfields located in the region of Kirkuk, the official said. The city and its immediate surroundings, including the oilfields, are under Kurdish control.
There were no clashes reported about an hour after the deadline, but a resident said dozens of young Kurds deployed around Kirkuk with machine guns as the news of the warning spread.
The KRG and the Shi’ite-led central government in Baghdad are at loggerheads since a Kurdish independence referendum held last month in northern Iraq.
Kurdish authorities said on Friday they had sent thousands more troops to Kirkuk to confront Iraqi “threats.”
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has repeatedly denied any plans to attack the Kurds. Popular Mobilisation is a separate force from the regular army and officially reports to Abadi. It is deployed alongside the army south and west of Kirkuk.
Kirkuk, a city of more than one million people, lies just outside KRG territory but Peshmerga forces deployed there in 2014 when Iraqi security forces collapsed in the face of an Islamic State onslaught. The Peshmerga deployment prevented Kirkuk’s oilfields from falling into jihadist hands.
The Baghdad central government has taken a series of steps to isolate the autonomous Kurdish region since its overwhelming vote for independence in the referendum, including banning international flights from going there.