Kurds 'consolidating control' over Iraq's Kirkuk and liberated areas
Kurdish factions are refusing calls to withdraw from disputed areas they helped liberate from Islamic State control, while asserting their claim in other areas in northern Iraq.
On Tuesday, the Kirkuk Provincial Council (KPC) voted in favour of a motion to hoist the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) flag on public buildings in the province, in a vote boycotted by most Arab and Turkmen members.
Kirkuk is a multi-ethnic province 280 kilometres north of Baghdad designated since 2003 as 'disputed', and the decision is likely to stoke tensions between its communities as well as with the central government in Baghdad and Iran-backed militias deployed in some areas of Kirkuk.
The move, endorsed by the Kurdistan Union Party led by Jalal Talabani, is likely to be seen as a prelude to annexing Kirkuk to the KRG and a possible future Kurdish state.
Kurdish MP Mohammed Kamal insisted Kirkuk was Kurdish. "We find it surprising that some are bothered by the KRG flag. The (Kurdish) Peshmerga force have defended all the communities of the province from (Islamic State) attacks," he said.
But Turkmen MP Hassan Toran told The New Arab his bloc will challenge the move in the federal court, saying it does not fall within the powers of the KPC.
|We have sacrificed blood for them (the disputed areas) and are willing to do so again against any party that fights us
-Iraqi Kurdish leader
This comes a day after Kurdish military leaders rejected calls made by Iraqi officials to withdraw from regions in Nineveh province near Mosul captured from IS militants.
"We do not want to fight anyone but we can repel those who attack us," said Peshmerga commander Kamal al-Kirkuki in remarks quoted by local media.
"Areas liberated by the Peshmerga forces are no longer disputed and we will not hand them over to any party. We have sacrificed blood for them and are willing to do so again against any party that fights us," said Jaafar Sheikh Mustafa, Kurdish leader on Monday, echoing Kirkuki.
On Friday, Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on all non-regular forces, including Peshmerga forces, to hand over liberated areas to the Iraqi army.
The Iraqi government continues to be silent regarding the future of around 20 thousand square kilometres of territories Kurdish factions currently hold in Kirkuk, Nineveh, Diyala, and Salah al-Din.
"The position of the government is fixed, namely, returning to the borders of June 2014, and there are US guarantees to dissuade the Kurds," an Iraqi official told The New Arab over the phone, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Opening the issue at the time of the war with IS is not right," he added.
The KRG is planning a referendum later this year, but officials say the results of the referendum will be advisory and not trigger statehood automatically.