Kurds boost troop presence as Baghdad eyes Kirkuk

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Kurds boost troop presence as Baghdad eyes Kirkuk

They said the photos were taken "inside Kirkuk", which is also the name of the surrounding province.

Iraqi forces and Shi'ite Muslim paramilitaries, known as Popular Mobilisation, are deployed south and west of Kirkuk, after having recaptured the areas from Islamic State (IS).

But the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)'s Security Council expressed alarm late on Thursday at what it said was a significant Iraqi military build-up south of Kirkuk, "including tanks, artillery, Humvees and mortars".

Tension has steadily mounted between Baghdad and Erbil since September 25, when Iraqis in KRG-controlled areas - and in a handful of disputed areas - voted to declare political independence.

The Peshmerga took control of Kirkuk when Iraqi defenses crumbled in the face of the advancing Islamic State group in 2014.

Baghdad, in coordination with Ankara and Tehran, has dismissed the overwhelming "yes" to independence vote, threatening sanctions, worldwide isolation, and even a military response if Kurds refuse to cancel the results of the referendum.

Iraqi and Peshmerga forces have been operating in close proximity in northern Iraq in the USA -backed war on IS.

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"We will not allow anyone to attack (Kirkuk)", Arass Faqih, another civilian holding a Kalashnikov assault rifle, told AFP.

The peshmerga's Kirkuk commander, Sheikh Jaafar Mustafa, said his forces had withdrawn from areas they had entered during their fight against IS in the west of the province last week.

Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ruled out the use of military force against the Kurds.

In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, Baghdad banned worldwide flights from entering KRG-controlled areas and closed all foreign diplomatic missions based in the Kurdish region. At the time, peshmerga fighters were among the only groups to stand their ground against and eventually repel the IS militants.

Kurdish officials say they have been alarmed by military movements outside Kirkuk.

Hours before it was to begin, the northern Iraqi administration mobilized additional Peshmerga forces to Kirkuk with a view to securing the illegal referendum.

Southern Kirkuk is a strategic prize for both the Kurds and the federal government as it holds coveted oil fields.

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