By YAHYA BARZANJI
The Associated Press
Wednesday, March 9, 2011; 2:32 PM
SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq -- Thousands of Kurd forces will remain in their new positions around the oil-rich Iraqi city of Kirkuk for now, a senior Kurdish official said Wednesday.
While the Kurds have described the move as temporary, the fighters' continued presence is seen by some as a gambit to bring the city under Kurdish control and is sure to increase tensions between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurds' self-ruled northern region.
The Kurdish government, which has a separate president and parliament, sent thousands of its troops into positions around Kirkuk on Feb. 24, saying it feared that demonstrations planned for the next day could turn violent.
Kirkuk, a multiethnic city just southwest of the Kurdish autonomous zone, is claimed by both Arabs and Kurds. Its future is considered one of the most potentially explosive issues facing the Iraqi government as U.S. troops prepare to leave at the end of this year.
"Our forces will leave when the troubles and tension end in Kirkuk and the city returns to its normal situation," said Jafaar Mustafa, the minister in charge of the Kurdish "peshmerga" fighting force. He did not give an exact date and said the Kurds were coordinating the fighters' presence with the Iraqi army in the area.
The Kurds have long had forces north of the city, working with U.S. and Iraqi troops in a series of combined checkpoints created at the behest of American forces as a way to foster cooperation and trust between Kurdish and Arab troops. But the additional forces sent in, and their move south of the city, increased their presence considerably.
"Kurds are now trying to see if they can encircle Kirkuk with a ring of Kurdish forces, which is something they've never had before," said Michael Knights from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The Kurdish side says it needs to protect the city from al-Qaida, Arab groups and supporters of Saddam Hussein's former regime, acting on intelligence that those groups were planning to take over the city during protests.
"We are not strangers to Kirkuk. We are part of the defense mechanism to protect Kirkuk," said Maj. Gen. Shirko Fateh, the commander of the newly deployed peshmerga forces.
Fateh said his forces now control all five roads leading to Kirkuk from Iraqi cities to the south.
Fateh said the move was coordinated with the central Iraqi government and U.S. forces, but a close ally of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said the premier asked the Kurdish forces to pull back. U.S. military officials did not have an immediate response.
Hassan al-Sineed, the head of the parliament's security and defense committee, said al-Maliki asked President Massoud Barzani, a Kurd, to pull the forces back because there is no more need for them.
Al-Maliki is caught between standing tough on an issue that is considered central to his Arab constituency and not upsetting the Kurds, who are one of his key allies in his newly-formed government.
The peshmerga arrival in the city 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad raised fears with Arab and Turkoman residents, who are afraid that the Kurdish forces will never leave and are instead trying to push for full Kurdish control of the city.
"The safety of Kirkuk people should be the responsibility of the central government only," said an Arab politician in the city, Ahmed al-Obeidi. "What we need here is useful solutions, not more troops sent by politicians who want to change the fate of the city."
He also suggested that the decision to deploy the troops was a way to deflect attention from ongoing protests in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah. Thousands of demonstrators have been taking to the streets of the city, demanding political and economic reforms.
Associated Press writers Rebecca Santana and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this report.