Kurdish referendum: Iraqi government denies claims it is mounting an attack on contested city

The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of northern Iraq has claimed that Baghdad is preparing to retake the contested oil-rich city of Kirkuk by force, as the row over the recent Kurdish independence vote escalates. 

“We’re receiving dangerous messages that Iraqi forces, including Popular Mobilisation [Units, Shia paramilitaries] and Federal Police, are preparing a major attack… on Kurdistan,” a tweet from the KRG’s Security Council said on Wednesday, adding that forces were building up near both Kirkuk and Mosul.

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An Iraqi military spokesperson said that the KRG’s claims were baseless.  

“We are getting ready for the battle in al-Qaim, we’re not concerned by confrontations other than with Daesh [Isis],” he told Reuters news agency. 

al-Qaim, on the border with Syria, is one of the last few areas of the country in which Isis fighters still cling on in the face of the military might of the US-backed coalition.

Relations between Baghdad and Irbil are at an all time low after the overwhelming ‘yes’ result in last month’s controversial Kurdish independence referendum, which the Iraqi central government refused to recognise.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government was particularly angered by the inclusion of some areas in the vote which did not have a significant Kurdish presence before the operation to remove Isis from the Iraqi half of its so-called caliphate began last October. 

Kirkuk, an ethnically mixed and oil-rich province, emerged as the epicentre of tensions between the two sides. 

While Prime Minister Abadi said earlier this month that his government would avoid violent confrontation with Kurdish forces, allied Shia Popular Mobilisation Unit (PMU) leaders have repeatedly threatened to forcibly remove Kurdish forces from the province. 

The military claims come just hours after a Baghdad court issued an arrest warrant of members of the KRG who organised the referendum for “violating a valid court ruling“ banning the independence vote as against the Iraqi Constitution.

Mr Abadi’s government, in an attempt to keep Iraq together, has taken several steps to isolate the KRG since the referendum, including banning international flights to the the area.

Neighbouring Iran and Turkey, worried about a growing desire for independence in their own minority Kurdish populations, have followed suit.