Kurdish authorities have sent thousands more troops to the oil region of Kirkuk to confront “threats” from Iraq’s central government, the vice president of the autonomous Kurdistan region said on Friday.
Tens of thousands of Kurdish soldiers were already stationed there and another 6,000 have arrived since Thursday, Kosrat Rasul said, amid mounting tensions between the northern territory and Baghdad.
Iraq’s government has taken a series of measures to isolate the region since Kurds held a Sept 25 referendum on independence, including banning international flights from going there and calling for a halt to its crude oil sales.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has repeatedly said he has no plans to go further and actually attack the territory.
But 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”.
“Tens of thousands of Kurdish Peshmerga and security forces are already stationed in and around Kirkuk,” Rasul said on Kurdish TV channel Rudaw. “At least 6,000 additional Peshmerga were deployed since Thursday night to face the Iraqi forces’ threat.”
The Kurds have repeatedly called for negotiations following the referendum in which an overwhelming majority voted for independence.
Kurdish Peshmerga moved into Kirkuk when the army collapsed in the face of Islamic State in 2014, preventing the region’s oil fields from falling in the hands of the militants.