Tillerson arrives in Iraq after rebuke from Baghdad over paramilitaries

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson listens to a reporter's question alongside Qatar's Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani during a media availability after their meeting, in Doha, Qatar October 22, 2017. REUTERS/Alex Brandon/Pool

By Maher Chmaytelli

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson arrived on Monday in Iraq, hours after the government rebuked him for calling on it to send home Iranian-backed paramilitary units that helped defeat Islamic State and capture the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk.

Iraq is one of the few countries allied closely to both the United States and Iran, and Tillerson’s effort to drive a wedge between Baghdad and Tehran appeared to have backfired, drawing a sharp statement from Prime Minister Haidar Abadi’s office.

Tillerson visited Iraq a day after a rare joint meeting with Abadi and Saudi Arabia’s king Salman in the kingdom’s capital Riyadh.

After that meeting he called on Iraq to halt the work of the Tehran-backed paramilitary units, which have operated alongside government troops in battles against Islamic State and, since last week, in a lightning advance that seized the oil city of Kirkuk from Kurdish security forces.

Iraqi forces are deploying tanks and artillery just south of a Kurdish-operated oil pipeline that crosses into Turkey, a Kurdish security official said, the latest in a series of Iranian-backed operations against the Kurds.

“Iranian militias that are in Iraq, now that the fight against Daesh and ISIS is coming to a close, those militias need to go home,” Tillerson said on Sunday in Saudi Arabia.

Abadi’s office responded sharply.

“No party has the right to interfere in Iraqi matters,” a statement from his office read. It did not cite the prime minister himself but a “source” close to him. It referred to the mainly Shi’ite paramilitaries, known as “Popular Mobilization”, as “patriots”.



The international battle against Islamic State fighters in northern Iraq since 2014 saw the United States and Iran effectively fighting on the same side, with both supporting the Iraqi government against the militants.

Washington has 5,000 troops in Iraq, and provided air support, training and weapons to Iraqi government forces, even as Iran armed, trained and advised Shi’ite paramilitaries which often fought alongside the army.

The latest twist in the Iraq conflict, pitting the central government against the Kurds, is trickier for U.S. policymakers. Washington still supports the central government but has also been allied to the Kurds for decades.

Iran is the pre-eminent Shi’ite power in the Middle East. Shi’ites, including Abadi, are the majority in Iraq which also has large Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities.

Iran exhibited its sway over Baghdad’s policies during tensions over a referendum last month in which the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region voted to secede from Iraq against Baghdad’s wishes, Kurdish officials say.

Baghdad responded to the vote by seizing the oil city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds see as the heart of any future homeland.

Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of foreign operations for Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, repeatedly warned Kurdish leaders to withdraw from Kirkuk or face an onslaught by Iraqi forces and allied Iranian-backed fighters, Kurdish officials briefed on the meetings said.

Iraq’s Sunni neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, share Washington’s concerns over Iran’s influence in Iraq.



Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif dismissed Tillerson’s remarks. The paramilitaries could not go home because “they are at home” already, he was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA.

Abadi has asserted his authority with the defeat of Islamic State in Mosul and the Iraqi army’s sweep through Kirkuk and other areas which were held by the Kurds.

The buildup at the Kurdish oil export pipeline is taking place northwest of Mosul, an official from the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) security council said.

The loss of Kirkuk dealt a major blow to the Kurds, who had been steadily building an autonomous region in northern Iraq since a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, who oppressed them for decades.

“We are concerned about continued military build-up of Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces towards the Kurdistan Region,” said the Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) in a statement.

Elections for Iraq’s Kurdistan region’s presidency and parliament set for Nov. 1 will be delayed because political parties failed to present candidates, the head of the electoral commission Hendrean Mohammed told Reuters.

Parties have been unable to focus on the elections because

of turmoil that followed the referendum, a Kurdish lawmaker said on condition of anonymity.


(additional reporting by Jon Landay; writing by Michael Georgy; editing by Peter Graff)


Turkey’s Erdogan calls on Iraqi Kurds to lower Kurdish flag in Kirkuk

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses his supporters during a rally for the upcoming referendum in the Black Sea city of Rize, Turkey, April 3, 2017. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday called on Iraqi Kurds to lower the Kurdish flag in the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, warning that failure to do so would damage their relations with Turkey.

Kirkuk, one of Iraq’s disputed territories, has Kurdish, Arab, and Turkmen populations. Kurdish peshmerga forces took control of it in 2014 when Islamic State overran around a third of Iraq and the army’s northern divisions disintegrated.

“We don’t agree with the claim ‘Kirkuk is for the Kurds’ at all. Kirkuk is for the Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds, if they are there. Do not enter into a claim it’s yours or the price will be heavy. You will harm dialogue with Turkey,” Erdogan said.

“Bring that flag down immediately,” he said at a rally in the Black Sea province of Zonguldak, where he was campaigning ahead of an April 16 referendum on constitutional changes that would broaden his powers.

Kurds have long claimed Kirkuk and its huge oil reserves. They regard the city, just outside their semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, as their historical capital.

The local Rudaw TV channel cited the governor of Kirkuk as saying that the Kurdistan flag should fly alongside the Iraqi national flag because the city is largely under the protection of Kurdish forces.

Turkey has long seen itself as the protector of Iraq’s Turkmen ethnic minority. Local media reported that leaders of Kirkuk’s Turkmen communities have rejected the raising of the Kurdish flag as against the constitution.

Turkey fears territorial gains by some Kurdish groups in Iraq and neighboring Syria could fuel Kurdish separatist ambitions inside Turkey, where PKK militants have fought an insurgency against the state for more than three decades.

(Reporting by Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Daren Butler and Nick Tattersall)

Islamic State attacks Kirkuk as Iraqi forces push on Mosul

Peshmerga forces stand behind rocks at a site of an attack by Islamic State militants in Kirkuk, Iraq,

By Michael Georgy

QAYYARA, Iraq (Reuters) – Islamic State launched a major attack on the city of Kirkuk on Friday as Iraqi and Kurdish forces pursued operations to seize territory around Mosul in preparation for an offensive on the jihadists’ last major stronghold in Iraq.

Islamic State’s assault on Kirkuk, which lies in an oil- producing region, killed 18 members of the security forces and workers at a power station outside the city, including two Iranians, a hospital source said.

Crude oil production facilities were not targeted and the power supply continued uninterrupted in the city. Kirkuk is located east of Hawija, a pocket still under control of Islamic State that lies between Baghdad and Mosul.

With air and ground support from the U.S.-led coalition, Iraqi government forces captured eight villages south and southeast of Mosul. Kurdish forces attacking from the north and east also captured several villages, according to statements from their respective military commands overnight.

The offensive that started on Monday to capture Mosul is expected to become the biggest battle fought in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

The United Nations says Mosul could require the biggest humanitarian relief operation in the world, with worst-case scenario forecasts of up to a million people being uprooted.

About 1.5 million residents are still believed to be inside Mosul. Islamic State has taken 550 families from villages around Mosul and is holding them close to IS locations in the city, probably as human shields, a spokeswoman for the U.N. human rights office said in Geneva.

The fighting has forced 5,640 people to flee their homes so far from the vicinity of the city, the International Organization for Migration said late on Thursday.

The Turkish Red Crescent said it was sending aid trucks to northern Iraq with food and humanitarian supplies for 10,000 people displaced by fighting around Mosul.


A U.S. service member died on Thursday from wounds sustained in an improvised explosive device blast near the city.

Roughly 5,000 U.S. forces are in Iraq. More than 100 of them are embedded with Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces, advising commanders and helping them ensure coalition air power hits the right targets, officials say.

However, the Kurdish military command complained that air support wasn’t enough on Thursday.

“Regrettably a number of Peshmerga have paid the ultimate sacrifice for us to deliver today’s gains against ISIL. Further, Global Coalition warplane and support were not as decisive as in the past,” the Kurdish command said in a statement.

Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, addressing anti-Islamic State coalition allies meeting in Paris via video link, said the offensive was advancing more quickly than planned.

A senior Kurdish military official told Reuters the offensive by the Iraqi and Kurdish forces was moving steadily as they push into villages on the outskirts of Mosul.

But he expected the offensive to slow down once they approach the city itself, where Islamic State had built trenches, dug tunnels and might use civilians as human shields.

“I believe it will be more clear within the coming weeks once we get rid of those villages and we come closer to the city how quickly this war will end. If they (Islamic State) decide to defend the actual city then the process will slow down.”

Once inside Mosul, Iraqi special forces would have to go from street to street and from neighborhood to neighborhood to clear explosives and booby traps, the official said.

Islamic State denied that government forces had advanced. Under the headline “The crusade on Nineveh gets a lousy start,” the group’s weekly online magazine Al-Nabaa said it repelled assaults on all fronts, killing dozens in ambushes and suicide attacks and destroying dozens of vehicles including tanks.

In online statements, Islamic State said it launched a series of counter-attacks and four suicide bombings to take back villages that fell on Thursday to the army and the Kurds and that it had blocked all their fresh offensives.

Military vehicles of peshmerga forces are seen at a site of an attack by Islamic State militants in Kirkuk, Iraq,

Military vehicles of peshmerga forces are seen at a site of an attack by Islamic State militants in Kirkuk, Iraq, October 21, 2016. REUTERS/Ako Rasheed


In Kirkuk, Islamic State attacked several police buildings and a power station in the early hours of Friday and some of the attackers remained holed up in a mosque and an abandoned hotel.

The militants also cut the road between the city and the power station 30 km (20 miles) to the north.

Several dozen took part in the assault, according to security sources who couldn’t confirm a claim by Islamic State that it had taken a Kurdish police officer hostage.

The assailants in Kirkuk came from outside the city, said the head of Iraq’s Special Forces, Lieutenant General Talib Shaghati, speaking on a frontline east of Mosul.Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi reacted to the killing of the Iranian citizens in Kirkuk, saying these attacks are “the last breath of terrorists in Iraq”.

At least eight militants were killed, either by blowing themselves up or in clashes with the security forces, the sources said. Kurdish forces had dislodged the militants from all the police and public buildings they had seized before dawn, they said.

A Kurdish security personnel takes cover at a site of an attack by Islamic State militants in Kirkuk, Iraq,

A Kurdish security personnel takes cover at a site of an attack by Islamic State militants in Kirkuk, Iraq, October 21, 2016. REUTERS/Ako Rasheed


Kurdish NRT TV footage showed machine gun fire hitting a drab two-floor building that used to be a hotel, and cars burning in a nearby street.

Islamic State claimed the attacks in online statements, and authorities declared a curfew in the city where Kurdish forces were getting reinforcements.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters took control of Kirkuk in 2014, after the Iraqi army withdrew from the region, fleeing an Islamic State advance through northern and western Iraq.

On the frontline south of Mosul, thick black smoke lingered from oil wells that Islamic State torched to evade air surveillance, in the region of Qayyara.

The army and the U.S.-led coalition took back this region in August and are using its air base as a hub to support the offensive on Mosul.

“Long live Iraq, death to Daesh,” was painted on a wall near an army checkpoint there, referring to an Arabic acronym of Islamic State.

The army Humvees at the checkpoint carried Shi’ite flags, revealing that the soldiers of this unit belonged to Iraq’s majority community.

Flying Shi’ite flags in the predominantly Sunni region and the participation of the Popular Mobilization Force, a coalition of mostly Iranian-trained militias, in a support role to the army has raised concerns of sectarian violence and revenge killings during or after the battle.

The nation’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, on Friday renewed a call to spare civilians.

“All those who are participating in the battle have to respect the humanitarian principles and refrain from seeking vengeance,” said a sermon delivered in Sistani’s name in the holy Shi’ite city of Kerbala by one of his representatives.

(Additional reporting by Michael Georgy near Qayyara, Stephen Kalin east of Mosul and Saif Hameed in Baghdad; editing by Giles Elgood)

More than 70 tents burned down in Iraqi refugee camp

Tents that were destroyed by fire are seen at Yahayawa refugee camp near Kirkuk, Iraq,

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – More than 70 tents were destroyed by fire on Monday in the refugee camp of Yahayawa, near the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, but no one was injured, the United Nations’ refugee agency UNHCR said.

The ministry of displacement and migration “has requested us to provide tents and core relief items CRIs to affected families”, UNHCR spokeswoman in Baghdad, Caroline Gluck, said.

“We will respond with tents and CRIs without delay; the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian affairs is coordinating with other clusters to provide any other assistance needed,” she said in an email.

The war with Islamic State has forced about 3.4 million people to leave their homes across Iraq, the U.N. says.

Last week, the UNHCR said that hundreds of thousands more people could be uprooted by the military assault to dislodge the militants from Mosul, the biggest city still under Islamic State control, in northern Iraq.

The Yahayawa camp houses about 500 internally displaced families and is managed by the provincial council.

(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Louise Ireland)