The top U.S. ground commander leading the anti-Islamic State coalition in Iraq on Thursday flatly dismissed recent allegations that Iraqi forces were planning to overtake the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, or other areas inside semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan.
“I’ve actually got absolutely zero proof that anybody at the senior level of the Iraqi Security Force apparatus has sent any threatening messages to the government in Erbil, or their partners in this fight against [the Islamic State],” Maj. Gen. Robert White told reporters at the Pentagon.
Iraqi security forces, alongside Kurdish peshmerga and Iranian-backed Shia militias known as Popular Mobilization Forces, or PMF, have been clearing out pockets of Islamic State resistance in and around the northern Iraqi city of Hawija. The city, which lies roughly 40 miles west of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, was liberated by Iraqi and coalition forces in late September.
The vast Iraqi military presence around Hawija was simply “a natural conclusion” to the siege and eventual recapture of the city from [Islamic State] control, the two-star general said.
“The plan all along has been to mass Iraqi Security Forces as close as possible to the [city] … to close the distance and deny Daesh freedom of maneuver,” he noted, using the derogatory Arabic term for the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL.
Neither Gen. White nor his Iraqi and Kurdish counterparts are “not aware of any direct threats between the government of Iraq, the security force apparatus, and the government in Erbil or their security forces,” he said during a teleconference from Baghdad.
Rumors of a possible mass offensive by Iraqi forces and their counterparts in the PMF in southwest Kirkuk and northern Mosul began to circulate online among local media reports. Speculation over possible military action being taken by Baghdad against Kurdish-held territories underlines growing internal tensions in Iraq since Iraqi Kurdistan’s landmark independence referendum vote late last month.
Iraq, along with Turkey and Iran — who also have large Kurdish populations within their countries — characterized the Sept. 25 vote, which could pave the way for members of the Kurdish Regional Government to secede from Iraq over the next two years as a threat to regional stability in the Middle East.
The U.S. also opposed the referendum, arguing it could derail the ongoing fight against Islamic State.
Two days after the referendum vote, Iraqi parliamentarians voted to deploy the country’s security forces to Kirkuk and reclaim control of the city from Kurdish control. Iraqi Prime Minster Haider al-Abadi also shutdown all commercial air traffic into and out of Iraqi Kurdistan, after officials from the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, refused to cede control of the territory’s airports to Baghdad.
Kirkuk has been a major flashpoint in ongoing tensions between Erbil and Baghdad, since Kurdish Peshmerga liberated the city from Islamic State control last year. After capturing Kirkuk from the Islamic State, KRG President Masoud Barzani said the city would remain under Peshmerga protection indefinitely. That pronouncement effectively put one of Iraq’s top oil-producing territories under Erbil’s control.
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