Iraq sends signals it may be too late for Kurds to negotiate

Kurdish authorities in Iraq offer to put an independence drive on hold, stepping up efforts to resolve a crisis in relations with Baghdad via dialogue rather than military means. But a Iraqi military spokesman suggested an offensive to wrest back Kurdish-held territory would continue regardless.

Turkey, which is also opposed to Kurds' independence, looks to control pipelines with Iraq

A Kurdish Peshmarga fighter carries a rocket in north of Kirkuk, where most of the fighters fled from after Iraq government forces and an Iran-backed militia approached. (Ako Rasheed/Reuters)

Kurdish authorities in Iraq offered on Wednesday to put an independence drive on hold, stepping up efforts to resolve a crisis in relations with Baghdad via dialogue rather than military means. But a Iraqi military spokesman suggested an offensive to wrest back Kurdish-held territory would continue regardless.

The Iraqi government has transformed the balance of power in the north of the country since launching a campaign last week against the Kurds, who govern an autonomous region of three northern provinces.

The Iraqi government's advance over the past week has been achieved with comparatively little violence, with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters mostly withdrawing on Oct. 16 and soon after without a fight.

Iraq's government forces were supported by the Iranian-backed Shia Popular Mobilisation militia.

"The fighting between the two sides will not produce a victory for any, it will take the country to total destruction," said the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in a statement on Wednesday.

The KRG proposed an immediate ceasefire, a freezing of the results of a September referendum in which Kurds voted overwhelmingly for in a non-binding referendum for independence, and "starting an open dialogue with the federal government based on the Iraqi Constitution."

Baghdad declared the referendum illegal and responded to the vote by seizing back the city of Kirkuk, the oil-producing areas around it and other territory that the Kurds had captured from militant group Islamic State.

In a brief social media comment hinting that the campaign would continue, an Iraqi military spokesman said: "Military operations are not connected to politics."

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, greets Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi before a meeting in Ankara on Wednesday. (PresIdential Press Service via AP)

Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi has ordered his army to recapture all disputed territory and has also demanded central control of Iraq's border crossings with Turkey, all of which are inside the Kurdish autonomous region.

Appearing alongside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Abadi said: "With the referendum they tried to break up our territory, they tried to redefine our borders."

For his part, Erdogan said his country is prepared to help Iraq's central government export oil through a pipeline that would largely bypass Iraq's Kurdish region.

Baghdad is demanding that the Kurds hand over a disputed pipeline they have used to export oil through Turkey.

Erdogan said Ankara would provide "every kind of support" to help Iraq reopen another, damaged pipeline, that runs near the city of Mosul.

Erdogan also said talks were underway on a possible move to close down Turkey's border with the autonomous Kurdish region.

Humanitarian issues in Kirkuk, Taz Khurmato

Nearly 30,000 Kurds have been displaced from Kirkuk where sectarian tension flared after Iraqi forces took control of it, humanitarian organizations said on Wednesday.

Amnesty International, said on Tuesday that satellite images, videos, photos and dozens of testimonies indicate that hundreds of properties were looted, set on fire and destroyed in what appeared to be a targeted attack on predominantly Kurdish areas of the city of about 100,000 people.

Many citizens have also been displayed from Tuz Khurmato, located between oil-rich Kirkuk and Baghdad, and inhabited by Shia Turkmen and Arabs.

"Many of the people displaced are staying in the open and in public places, in schools, mosques or unfinished buildings," Said Jennifer Connet, Oxfam official said of the situation in Tuz. "They need emergency aid and also psychological support as many lost contact with children and relatives or witnessed traumatic incidents as they fled."

Thousands have been displaced from Kirkuk, aid organizations have said, while Turkey said it would help Iraq restore a damaged pipeline not far from its border, in Mosul. Meanwhile, Iran said Wednesday it has opened a border crossing near Sulaymaniyah. (Google)

Popular Mobilization, a paramilitary force trained in Iran and supporting the Iraqi government in the region, was not involved in the violence that happened in Tuz Khurmato, spokesman Karim Nuri told Reuters in Baghdad.

"It was not forced displacement: our Kurdish brothers fled fearing reprisals," he said, calling on government security to put an end to the unrest.

The Kurds displaced from Tuz fled to the neighbouring regions of Diyala, Sulaimaniya, and some to Erbil, further north, said Connet.

"Humanitarian access to the displaced families is possible but going to Tuz is extremely difficult," she said.

The fighting between the central government and the Kurds would seem to be tricky for the United States which is a close ally of both sides, arming and training both the Kurds and the central government's army to fight against Islamic State.

But President Donald Trump said last week the U.S. was "not taking sides" in the dispute.

In another development on Wednesday, Iran opened a border crossing with the Kurdistan region that had been closed following last month's vote in favour of independence.

The Bashmagh border crossing is located approximately 50 kilometres east of the city of Sulaimaniya in Iraqi Kurdistan.

An official told Reuters that it was not clear when the other borders points between Iran and the Kurdistan region of Iraq would reopen. 

With files from Associated Press