By Associated Press - Monday, October 9, 2017

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi warned on Monday there could be a “civil war” over the Kurdish-administered city of Kirkuk if talks over Kurdish independence are left unresolved.

Allawi, in an interview with The Associated Press, urged Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, as well as Iraq’s central government and its Iranian-backed militia forces, to show restraint and resolve their disputes over the oil-rich city.

The head of the Asaib al-Haq militia Qais Khazali warned worshippers in a sermon Sunday that Iraq’s Kurds were planning to claim much of north Iraq, including Kirkuk, for an independent state, after Iraq’s Kurds voted for independence in a controversial but non-binding referendum two weeks ago.

He said it would be tantamount to a “foreign occupation,” according to remarks reported by the Afaq TV channel, which is close to the state-sanctioned militia.

Allawi, a former prime minister, said any move by the country’s Popular Mobilization Front militias, which include the Asaib al-Haq, to enter Kirkuk would “damage all possibilities for unifying Iraq” and open the door to “violent conflict.”

“The government claims they control the Popular Mobilization Forces. If they do they should restrain them, rather than go into a kind of civil war. And there should be a restraint on Masoud Barzani and the peshmerga not to take aggressive measures to control these lands,” said Allawi.

Kirkuk was included in the September referendum even though it falls outside the autonomous Kurdish region in the northeast Iraq. The ethnically-mixed city has been administered by Kurdish forces since 2014, when government forces fled from the advancing Islamic State group.

Barzani held the referendum over the strong objections of Baghdad, Ankara, and Tehran, enraging leaders in the regional capitals.

Also Monday, Iraq’s government demanded Kurdish-based cellular network operators relocate their headquarters to Baghdad. Two of Iraq’s three main network operators are headquartered in the Kurdish region, namely Asiacell and Korek Telecom.

It was the latest in a package of power-centralization measures intended to pressure the Kurdish regional government to abandon the referendum. Baghdad banned international flights to and from the region one week ago.

Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi’s cabinet asked Turkey and Iran to close their crossings with the Kurdish region and liaise exclusively with Baghdad. The Kurdish region is responsible for up to a quarter of Iraq’s oil production, with a portion of it exported directly to Turkey.

The prime minister has demanded the Kurdish peshmerga forces accept joint administration over Kirkuk.

Turkey and Iran also threatened punitive measures against the region, fearing Kurds in their own countries would renew their campaigns for self-rule.

But they also see an opportunity to expand their influence in fragile north Iraq, which is reeling from the war on IS. The fight has drawn the Shiite-dominated Popular Mobilization Front militias deep into Sunni-majority northern Iraq.

Shiite politicians close to Iran are urging a hard line against the Kurdish regional government in response to the referendum. They seek to curb Kurdish ambitions, which they see as the biggest obstacle to expanded Iranian influence in north Iraq.

Allawi, also a Shiite but one of Iran’s detractors in Baghdad, warned against opening the door to foreign interference.

“Kirkuk has become a flashpoint,” Allawi said. “Iraqis should be left alone to discuss their own problems.”

Barzani has not declared independence for any part of northern Iraq.

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