Fears of fresh conflict in northern Iraq are bubbling to the surface weeks before Iraqi Kurds hold a contentious vote on independence, with warnings of war over disputed, ethnically mixed border regions and reports of Shia forces pushing Kurd officials from a town to prevent voting.
The Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, has refused repeated requests from Baghdad, the US and regional powers to postpone its 25 September referendum, saying it would only do so if an alternative was presented by Iraq's central government.
Tensions have risen in areas liberated by KRG forces outside the region's original 2003 borders, including the city of Kirkuk. On Monday the KRG's president, Massoud Barzani, said "any attempt to change the reality using force" in Kirkuk "should expect that every single Kurd will be ready to fight".
Dr Jutyar Mahmoud, a member of the region's independence referendum commission, told Middle East Eye that disputed territories such as Kirkuk were the focus of fears of a new conflagration after the referendum.
"We will face border problems in the near future and I definitely think there will be another war, and soon," he said.
He described Iraq as "militarily weak", after three years of battling the Islamic State (IS), during which time forces have suffered extensive losses, particularly in the recent nine-month fight to liberate Mosul.
A greater threat, he said, was posed by Iraq's other army - the Iranian-backed paramilitary Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilisation force.
"The Hashd are another threat and maybe Iran will push them to fight us," Mahmoud said, adding that Iraq's prime minister Haider al-Abadi "doesn't control the Hashd but Iran can".
His comments preceded bouts of recent unrest in some of the contested border regions. On Saturday, local Arabs pulled the KRG flag from a council building in Mandali, in the province of Diyala, and staged an armed, albeit peaceful, protest in the town.
The next day, the town council sacked the Kurdish mayor and overruled a previous vote which agreed to the town's participation in the referendum, according to the Kurdish news service Rudaw. Claims that the Hashd were involved was denied by a well-placed source, who said such actions were not in line with the force's policies.
The source told MEE that if local fighters affiliated with the Hashd were involved, they were representing themselves not the Hashd al-Shaabi.
Also on Saturday, Kurdish Turkmen were urged to boycott the referendum by eight Turkmen parties in Kirkuk, who repeated Baghdad's line that the vote is unconstitutional.
In Sinjar, 2,000 Yazidis have joined the Hashd, according to the force's spokesman Ahmed al-Asadi.
Yazidi refugees living in camps said the move was prompted by dissatisfaction with the Kurdish peshmerga forces for failing to protect them from IS in 2014, and what they said was ongoing neglect and marginalisation of Yazidis under the KRG.
Adding to extant tensions are limitations of voter eligibility. Although northern Iraq has long been ethnically-mixed, Arabs relocated under former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's Arabisation schemes are not eligible to vote in the referendum, said the KRG referendum commission's Mahmoud.
Voting in the disputed territories would also be limited to areas controlled by the peshmerga, Mahmoud said, adding that Hashd forces had made it clear that they would not accept ballot boxes being placed in any areas under their control.
Both the peshmerga and Hashd forces were meanwhile maintaining a strong military presence in several disputed territories, including Kirkuk province.
Several thousand Turkmen Hashd fighters reportedly control what Hashd spokesman Asadi said was the lion's share of the province, but he insisted any talk of war was political bluster.
"The Hashd al-Shaabi was founded to ensure the stability and security of Iraq, not to ignite sectarian or regional wars," he told Middle East Eye.
"Anyone who promotes these ideas about war between Iraq and Kurdistan are outsiders intent on destabilising the security and stability of Iraq.
"The affairs in Kurdistan are not going to lead to a war and such talk is nothing but a passing political tempest to satisfy some political matters for some Kurdish politicians.
"We view Kurdistan as an Iraqi land and we will defend it as we continue to defend all of Iraq."
Asadi said "brotherly ties" between Hashd fighters and the Kurds had been proved by how they stood united in one trench to defend Iraq in the battle against IS.
Baghdad, the US and regional powers have urged the KRG to postpone its referendum (Reuters)
Dr Kemal Kerkuki, a peshmerga commander stationed near IS-occupied Hawija, echoed this sentiment, saying the chance of war with Iraq was "very, very narrow, if not impossible" - but was keen to reiterate the strength of the peshmerga.
"The peshmerga forces are always ready to defend our lands and I think the fight against IS has shown the whole world what our forces are capable of," he said.
"However, we are determined to use the referendum and all democratic tools in our negotiations with Baghdad for an amicable divorce."
Kerkuki insisted defeating IS remained a priority for both the KRG and Baghdad, and said there was ongoing cooperation between Iraqi and peshmerga forces.
Having swiftly defeated IS in Tal Afar, Iraqi forces are now preparing to begin their operations to retake Hawija, in one of the many disputed areas along the border regions between the KRG and Iraq.
Kerkuki admitted there were recurrent problems between rival Iraqi forces but remained adamant that the referendum would help resolve rather than exacerbate problems in the border regions.
"The referendum is a peaceful and democratic tool to solve the chronic problems between the Kurdistan region and Iraq," he said.
"The referendum is a tool to defuse war and intra-city conflicts in the newly liberated areas, particularly the so-called 'disputed areas'."
Israel premier support Kurdish independence vote
Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu voices support for the formation of a Kurdish state in the lead-up to a planned independence referendum in Iraq's Kurdistan region, which has sparked strong criticisms from the central government as well as Iraq's neighbors.
In a Wednesday announcement, Netanyahu's office said Israel supports the "legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to attain a state of its own."
The statement, however, noted that Tel Aviv opposes the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has long been fighting for autonomy in Turkey.
"Israel opposes the PKK and considers it a terrorist organization," it said.
During a meeting with a delegation of 33 US Republican congressmen in mid-August, Netanyahu expressed interest in partitioning Iraq and establishing an independent Kurdish state in the country.
Netanyahu does not frequently speak publicly about the highly sensitive issue which also worries Turkey.
The last time Netanyahu addressed the issue publicly was in 2014 when he said in a speech that Israel should "support the Kurdish aspiration for independence."
Israel has a longstanding relationship with the Kurds, whom it regards as one of the few non-Arab allies in the area.
A report published in the New Yorker magazine in 2004 said Israeli military and intelligence operatives were active in Kurdish areas and providing training for commando units.
According to the report, Israel has been expanding its presence in Kurdistan and encouraging Kurds, its allies in the region, to create an independent state.
The Kurdish referendum is scheduled for September 25, despite the strong opposition from the central government in Baghdad and Iraq's neighboring countries.
On Tuesday Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi rejected the planned Kurdish referendum on independence from the Arab country as "unconstitutional," warning that the Kurds are "illegally" exporting Iraq's oil.
The comments came a few hours after the country's parliament overwhelmingly voted against the plebiscite, which has been planned by the Kurdistan Regional Government. The vote prompted Kurdish lawmakers to quit the parliament floor.
Several regional countries, including Iran and Turkey, are concerned that such a referendum could ignite a fresh conflict with Baghdad and possibly neighboring countries, diverting attention from the ongoing war against Daesh Takfiri terrorists in Iraq and Syria.
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