Baghdad (Iraq) (AFP) – Iraqi forces on Friday issued an ultimatum for Kurdish fighters to hand over a key border post with Turkey, as Baghdad’s troops also battled to wipe out the Islamic State group in the country.
Baghdad is currently engaged on two separate fronts: pushing a final offensive to eradicate the jihadists along the western border with Syria, while looking to snatch back disputed territory from the Kurds in the north.
Iraqi forces on Thursday mounted a new assault on Kurdish fighters in the strategic Zummar area of Nineveh province, triggering heavy artillery exchanges in the latest flare-up of a crisis sparked by an independence vote last month.
After claiming the capture of several villages, Baghdad laid down a tight deadline to the Kurds to withdraw from the area around the Fishkhabur border post “within several hours”, a government source told AFP.
But the Kurds insisted they had managed to repulse all Iraqi advances and gave no indication they were willing to abandon the crucial oil export route, where rival pipelines belonging to both sides cross into Turkey.
There had been fears the bitter dispute that has deepened between the Baghdad government and Iraqi Kurdish leaders since they held a referendum for independence would hamper the battle against IS.
But buoyed by a string of recent military successes, Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is pressing ahead with the dual offensives.
– Clashes with IS –
As the latest push began against the Kurds, Abadi also announced the start of an offensive to retake the “last den” of IS jihadists in the country around the town of Al-Qaim in the Euphrates valley on the border with Syria.
An Iraqi general told AFP that troops backed up by local Sunni militiamen bombarded IS with missiles and mortars south of the town on Friday as they tried to press early gains.
Iraqi forces backed by air strikes from a US-led coalition have recaptured 95 percent of the territory IS seized in the country in 2014, dismantling their self-styled caliphate.
Al-Qaim has been renowned as a hotbed of jihadist insurgency ever since the 2003 US-led invasion. Coalition commanders have dubbed the latest operation “the last big fight” in the campaign against IS.
The jihadists are also battling for survival in adjoining territory they hold in Syria, where competing offensives backed by Russia and the US are looking to drive them back.
– UN pushes Iraq, Kurds –
The US — which has armed and trained both Iraqi and Kurdish forces — has tried to calm tensions between the erstwhile allies in the fight against IS and refocus attention on the jihadists.
The UN Security Council on Thursday urged Iraq’s government and Kurdish leaders to set a timetable for talks on ending their conflict that has seen Baghdad snatch back swathes of territory in a lightning sweep since mid-October.
A mainly bloodless advance by Iraqi forces saw them take reclaim the entire oil-rich province of Kirkuk, stripping the Kurds of a major chunk of their oil revenues and dealing a crippling blow to their hopes of independence.
The latest push around Fishkhabur now risks taking them into territory inside the three core provinces that make up the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.
The area where the borders of Iraq, Turkey and Syria converge is also a key economic hub for US-backed Kurdish forces across the frontier, with Iraq alleging it is used to smuggle out fuel.
Baghdad insists it has the right under Iraq’s constitution to control the border and aims to revive a defunct pipeline that runs from the oilfields of Kirkuk to the area of the border crossing to the Turkish port of Ceyhan.
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