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Iraq victory over IS overshadowed by
growing crisis with Kurdish region

By Jamal Hashim BAGHDAD Iraq (Xinhua) -- The hard-won victory in 2017 over the terror group Islamic State (IS) by Iraq is overshadowed by a growing conflict with the Kurds following a controversial independence referendum.

In early 2017, Iraqi forces advanced into the city of Mosul, IS’ de facto capital, after grueling fighting with IS militants armed with booby-traps, snipers and suicide bombers.

On July 10, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who is also the commander-in-chief of the Iraqi forces, formally declared full liberation of Mosul, after nine months of fierce fighting.

The recapturing of Mosul was a great victory and turning point in the Iraqi anti-terrorism war, as it symbolized the collapse of IS.

After the liberation of Mosul, Iraqi forces launched several offensives to dislodge IS militants from remaining smaller redoubts in Tal Afar area near Mosul, Hawijah Pocket in southwestern Kirkuk, al-Qaim and Rawa areas near the border with Syria in the western province of Anbar.

On Dec. 9, Abadi officially declared full liberation of Iraq from IS militants, sealing a final victory in the three-year war.

“I announce to the Iraqi people and all the world that our forces have reached the last redoubts of Daesh (IS) and have raised the Iraqi flag over areas of western Anbar (province) which was the last occupied land by IS,” Abadi said in a televised speech.

But there are still small groups of IS militants hiding in urban areas as sleeper cells or fled to deserts and rugged areas to seek a safe haven. They are still capable of carrying out attacks from time to time against the security forces and civilians.

For years after the U.S. invasion into Iraq in 2003, the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq has been at odds with the Iraqi central government over wealth distribution and lands outside the region.

The Kurds consider the northern oil-rich province of Kirkuk and parts of Nineveh, Diyala and Salahudin provinces as the “disputed areas” which they want to be incorporated into their Kurdish region, a move fiercely opposed by the Arabs and Turkomans living there and by Baghdad.

The ethnically mixed Kirkuk province, located in the south of the Kurdish region, is rich in oil resources and has a population of estimated 1, 25 million. It has been controlled by the Peshmerga since 2014.

The dispute between Baghdad and the region escalated into conflict after the Sept. 25 referendum that approved the independence of the Kurdistan region and the disputed areas.

But the Kurds later lost the battle of Kirkuk, as the independence move is opposed by most countries, especially by Iraq’s neighbors such as Turkey, Iran and Syria, which fear it will threaten their own territorial integrity, as a large population of Kurds live in those countries.

On Oct. 16, Abadi ordered government forces to enter the oil-rich Kirkuk province and took control of the city of Kirkuk, as well as key military sites and oilfields.

This undermined the Kurds’ hope of creating a viable independent state, forcing Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani to show conciliatory signals, including freezing the outcome of the referendum. But Abadi said Baghdad will accept only cancelation of the controversial vote before any negotiation between the two sides could begin.

There have been catastrophic consequences for the Kurdish region after the referendum as the Kurds lost much of their gains that they got, especially after the 2003 Iraqi war launched by the U.S.

The defeat in Kirkuk put Barzani under high pressure, as many Kurds and Barzani’s rival political parties held him responsible for the loss.

On Oct. 29, Barzani told the Kurdish parliament in a letter he was to step down as president of the Kurdish region from Nov. 1. Iraq’s Supreme Federal Court on Nov. 20 issued a verdict, ruling the referendum as “unconstitutional.”

Soon after Barzani’s resignation, his frustrated supporters attacked and looted offices of Kurdish political parties opposed to Barzani in Duhok province, while other protesters stormed the Kurdish parliament building when it met to approve Barzani’s resignation.

The political division and economic crisis led hundreds of Kurds to take to streets on Dec. 18 in several cities and towns in Sulaimaniyah province in northeastern Iraq.

The protests turned violent later as some demonstrators attacked the offices of all five Kurdish political parties, and set fire to the office of the ruling Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), headed by Barzani.

Five people were killed and more than 100 others were wounded during violent clashes between Kurdish protesters and security forces.

On Dec. 20, two Kurdish parties, Gorran and the Islamic Group of Kurdistan (Komela), decided to withdraw from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Kurdish Parliament Speaker Yousif Mohammed, from Gorran Movement, also decided to quit after a demand by his party.

However, it is widely expected that Abadi will continue to take measures against the Kurdish region to strip it of more power.

The negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil are expected to start in the coming year to resolve the referendum crisis, as Iraq will hold national elections on May 12.

The future of the Baghdad-Erbil standoff largely depends on the new generation of Kurdish leaders after the death of the veteran Jalal Talabani and the resignation of Barzani.



Turkey, Iraq join forces against Kurdish independence bid

ANKARA Turkey (Xinhua) -- Turkey and Iraq declared on Wednesday their willingness to boost bilateral cooperation and join forces against northern Iraq’s Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), following last month independence referendum.

“Turkey had to impose sanctions as the illegitimate referendum was held despite all of our warnings,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters at the presidential complex after meeting Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi who is visiting Ankara, insisting that “Turkey is supporting the territorial integrity of Iraq.”

Erdogan said that trilateral talks between Turkey, Iran and Iraq in the aftermath of the controversial vote in the Kurdish region “are heading towards a positive point.”

“We have discussed what political, military, cultural, trade and economic steps we could take” to boost relations, Erdogan said, insisting that his country would now consider the central Baghdad administration as sole interlocutor for improving ties with the neighboring country.

Abadi hailed the “fraternal” relations with Turkey and remarked that the battle against the Islamic State (IS) was coming towards an end with the government forces having retaken recently its Iraqi headquarters of Mossoul.

He also said that Iraq’s authorities will continue exerting the federal power, preserving the country’s unity.

Last week, Turkey said it had closed its air space to northern Iraq and work to hand control of the main border crossing into the region to the Iraqi central government.

While Abadi was traveling Wednesday to Ankara to have talks with Turkish leaders, Iraq’s KRG said it’s prepared to freeze the results of last month’s independence referendum that triggered deadly clashes with government troops and hurt oil exports.

The KRG also proposed an immediate ceasefire and talks with Baghdad “on the basis of the constitution.”

“As Iraq and Kurdistan are faced with grave and dangerous circumstances, we are all obliged to act responsibly in order to prevent further violence and clashes,” the KRG said in a statement on its website.

More than 90 percent of Iraqi Kurds voted for independence in the non-binding referendum, which was fiercely opposed by Baghdad as well as neighboring countries such as Turkey and Iran, fearing it could embolden their own Kurdish minorities.

The federal government sent troops this month to retake disputed areas that Kurdish Peshmerga fighters had seized in 2014 after IS routed Iraqi forces, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, important also for Turley because of the its turcoman minority.

The clashes led to the interruption of output at some of Iraq’s northern oil fields, reducing exports. Output halted at some sections of the giant Kirkuk oil field and other nearby deposits after federal forces captured them from the Kurds and as some workers and guards stayed away from work.

Iraq had been exporting close to 600,000 barrels a day on average this year from fields in Kirkuk and the Kurdish enclave, shipping them together through the same pipeline to Turkey’s Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has hinted that his government wants to take control of revenue generated from Kurdish oil exports, following the controversial ban on international flights to and from the Kurdistan Region.

President Erdogan also said that Turkey was ready to give all support to Baghdad as it seeks to reopen the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, through which Iraq stopped sending oil in 2014.

Abadi said in a tweet that his government wanted to pay monthly salaries of KRG employees with money from Kurdish oil sales.

“Federal government control of oil revenues is in order to pay KRG employee salaries in full and so that money will not go to the corrupt,” Abadi tweeted.

Turkey and Baghdad who had difficult ties in the past over Turkey’s presence at a military base in northern Iraq, have operated a spectacular rapprochement after the KRG referendum.

Ankara has since been training with the Iraqi army, and achieved to rally Teheran’s support in order to isolate the Kurdish regime with whom she enjoyed vast trade relations.



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