Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region has deployed tens of thousands of Peshmerga forces to the Kirkuk region amid tensions with the central government over a controversial secession referendum it held last month.
Kurdish TV channel Rudaw cited the region’s Vice President Kosrat Rasul on Friday as saying that the deployment was meant “to confront possible threats from Iraqi forces.”
“Tens of thousands of Kurdish Peshmerga and security forces are already stationed in and around Kirkuk,” he said. “At least 6,000 additional Peshmerga were deployed since Thursday night to face the Iraqi forces’ threat.”
Baghdad has adopted a range of punitive measures against the Kurdistan region, which defied international calls and held a referendum on separation from the mainland on September 25.
Those measures include banning international flights from the northern region and calling for a halt to its crude oil sales.
However, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has repeatedly said has he no plans to go further and actually attack the Kurdish territory.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)’s Security Council expressed alarm late on Thursday at what it said was a significant Iraqi military build-up south of Kirkuk “including tanks, artillery, Humvees and mortars.”
Earlier on Friday, AFP quoted an Iraqi general as saying that Iraqi troops launched offensives to retake Kurdish-held positions in the oil-province of Kirkuk.
However, the Iraqi military was quick to reject the claim. Baghdad says its troops deployed to the area are involved in operations against Daesh and have nothing to do with the Kurds.
Kirkuk is not part of the Kurdistan region but has a large Kurdish population.
The region, however, decided to take part in the referendum, in which over 90 percent of the voters said ‘Yes’ to separation from Iraq, according to figures given by Kurdish officials.
In the lead-up to the vote, Kurdistan’s President Massoud Barzani paid a controversial visit to the oil-rich Kirkuk Province’s capital of the same name in mid-September. The visit was harshly censured by officials of the central government.
The international community and Iraq’s neighbors had sternly warned the Kurdish region against holding the vote, saying its potential separation from Iraq would throw the Arab country, which is already busy with battles against Daesh terrorists, into more trouble.