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Kurds on high alert as Iraqi forces mass near Kirkuk

Kurds on high alert as Iraqi forces mass near Kirkuk

Kurdish authorities deployed thousands of fighters around the disputed oil city of Kirkuk on Friday for fear of an attack by Iraqi government troops and militia, a senior official said.

Some residents queued at petrol stations with jerry cans to fill up, while other civilians have begun taking up arms.

"Certainly the KRG government is very anxious", he said.

Baghdad, in coordination with Ankara and Tehran, has dismissed the overwhelming "yes" to independence vote, threatening sanctions, global isolation, and even a military response if Kurds refuse to cancel the results of the referendum.

KRG authorities have repeatedly called for negotiations since the referendum, in which an overwhelming majority voted for independence.

The Iraqi Army's military operation south of the Kirkuk province is not directed against the Kurdish Peshmerga paramilitary forces, an aide to the governor of the disputed province, Abdurrahman Talabani, said.

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Kirkuk lies just outside the KRG autonomous territory but Peshmerga forces moved in when the Iraqi army collapsed in the face of an Islamic State onslaught in 2014, preventing the region's oil fields from falling under jihadist control.

"We will not allow anyone to attack (Kirkuk)", Arass Faqih, another civilian holding a Kalashnikov assault rifle, told AFP. At the time, peshmerga fighters were among the only groups to stand their ground against and eventually repel the IS militants.

The peshmerga's Kirkuk commander, Jaafar Sheikh Mustafa, said his forces had withdrawn from areas they had recently entered during fighting against IS in the west of the province. "If the Iraqi army advances, we will fight". "Some Kurds describe Kirkuk as their Jerusalem, and they are saying that they are not going to give up this city".

Sources in Kirkuk also confirmed to Al Jazeera the movement of Iraqi forces on two fronts in Kirkuk, in the south and west of the city.

Southern Kirkuk is a strategic prize for both the Kurds and the federal government as it holds coveted oil fields. Earlier Baghdad dismissed the governor of Kirkuk and made a decision to deploy troops to the province.


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