Iraq came even closer to splitting apart today after the president of the country's autonomous Kurdish territories made the first step towards independence for the region.
Massoud Barzani asked the Kurdish parliament to form a committee which would organize an independence referendum, Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) member Farhad Sofiwho, who was at the session, told Reuters.
It is not yet clear how this request will develop from here, but it places Barzani at direct odds with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's central government in Baghdad. Kurdish forces moved into disputed areas in the north of the country — including taking singlehanded control of oil-rich Kirkuk — when a lightning offensive by hardline Sunni militants led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) routed Iraqi troops in the region. Barzani has since said that Kurds would hold on to the disputed regions.
Maliki denied Barzani's assertion on Wednesday, however.
"No one has the right to exploit the events that took place, to impose a fait accompli as has happened in the Kurdish region," he said during his weekly television address. "This, is rejected."
Maliki also took the opportunity to offer a general amnesty to Sunni tribes, which have been fighting government forces. He told fighters to "return to their senses," adding, "We are not excluding anybody, even those who committed misdeeds, apart from those who killed or shed blood." He did not elaborate on who would be eligible.
This move will be intended to splinter the ISIS-led insurgents, which thanks to the perception among many Sunnis that Maliki's Shiite-dominated government is corrupt and sectarian, now include some Sunni tribes.
Maliki's remarks on Kurdish independence come after the first session of Iraqi parliament since elections in April dissolved after just two hours of bickering and arguments. The session, held Monday, saw minority Sunnis and Kurds abandon proceedings in response to Shiite politicians' inability to name a replacement for or choose to reinstate Maliki. The top three posts in Iraqi government have, since the toppling of Saddam Hussein, been divided between the country's three largest demographics, with the prime minister's post going to a Shiite, the parliamentary speaker's to a Sunni, and the presidency to a Kurd.
The disagreement means that the formation of a national unity government now looks unlikely, despite a continued insurgent threat and pressure from the US, the United Nations, and even Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, to form a new government.
The Iraqi military is still struggling to contain the insurgents. Despite halting their advance in some areas and staging limited counterattacks, government forces are yet to make any decisive breakthroughs. Violence continued today with clashes near Tikrit, the focus of a concerted offensive over the past week, police forces told AFP.
Al Arabaya uploaded video broadcast on one of its sister channels Wednesday which it said showed an Iraqi officer explaining that commanders ordered he and other border guards withdraw from the Saudi and Syrian borders.
"We were not in danger, we were not exposed to anything, we received an order to withdraw, we didn't know why," the officer said. One unit head attempted to stay, he added, but couldn't refuse a direct order. Afterwards unspecified militants set fire to a warehouse and cars and attacked a well, he said. Saudi Arabia has reportedly deployed 30,000 troops to secure its 500-mile border with Iraq in response.
However, Iraqi military spokesman Lieutenant General Qassim Atta denied the withdrawal, telling reporters in Baghdad that it was "false news" designed to demoralize the Iraqi people and the country's "heroic fighters."
Meanwhile, in further signs of discord, 45 people were killed Wednesday as government forces backed by attack helicopters battled gunmen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Mahmoud al-Sarkhi in the city of Karbala, south of Baghdad, security sources told Reuters. The clashes apparently began when security forces attempted to arrest Sarkhi after his followers set up checkpoints and roadblocks in his neighborhood.
Sarkhi's men, who have fought with government and US troops before, attempted to stop security forces entering his house. However, after a six-hour battle which left 40 of his supporters and five police officers dead, security forces succeeded, only to find the cleric had escaped, the sources said.
Also today, the 32 Turkish truck drivers who had been held my ISIS in Mosul have been released, according to local media. Dogan news agency reported that the men are now being transferred to the border via Kurdish regions and that Turkish officials are in northern Iraq to arrange their return. Forty-nine other Turks, including consulate staff, who were also seized in Mosul on June 11 when ISIS overran the city are still being held.
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