Talks to defuse Iraq army-Kurdish standoff make little headway

BAGHDAD Thu Nov 22, 2012 4:14pm EST

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Talks to defuse a standoff between Iraqi troops and forces from the country's autonomous Kurdish region made little progress on Thursday with both sides further reinforcing positions on their disputed internal border.

The second military build-up this year illustrates how far relations between Baghdad's central government, led by Shi'ite Muslim Arabs, and ethnic Kurds have deteriorated, testing Iraq's federal cohesion nearly a year after American troops left.

Baghdad and Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region earlier this week both sent troops to an area over which they both claim jurisdiction, raising the temperature in a long-running feud over land and oil rights.

Iraqi Kurdish President Massoud Barzani met Iraq's speaker of parliament on Thursday in an apparent effort to cool the row. A statement issued after the talks said Barzani had agreed to "open the door" to negotiations.

In the meantime, both Kurdish troops and the Iraqi army reinforced their position in and around the contested cities of Kirkuk and Khanaqin, a police source said.

A spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party (PUK), which co-governs the Kurdish region, said their troops, known as Peshmerga, were under strict instruction not to engage with Iraqi forces. But a spokesman for the commander of the Iraqi security forces said Kurdish troops were provoking them.

"Despite efforts to calm the situation, the Peshmerga troops backed by rocket launchers and artillery have entered Khaniqeen and others have entered Kirkuk and Khaniqeen in civilian uniforms," he said.

The Iraqi army and Kurdish troops have previously come close to confrontation only to pull back at the last moment.

IRAQ ARMY COMMAND CENTRE AT ISSUE

Washington intervened to end a similar standoff in August and is now again in contact with Iraqi and Kurdish officials to ease tension mounting over the formation of a new command center for Iraqi forces to operate in the disputed areas.

A legislator with the Sadrist bloc, a critic of Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki within his coalition, said the talks were not serious and dismissed the entire conflict as a sham.

"The current escalation is deliberate and both sides do not intend to seek solutions, because the crisis is fabricated and it will end in a month," Amir al-Kinani told Reuters. "No one ready to fight, neither Shi'ites nor Kurds."

Kurdish political factions met on Thursday and denounced the Dijla Operations Command as a violation of the federal constitution and a sign of the danger Baghdad would repeat the "chauvinist attacks" of the past, referring to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons against them.

In a statement on the Kurdistan Regional Government's website, they called for the command center to be immediately dismantled.

Maliki says the Dijla Operations Command is necessary to keep order in one of the most volatile parts of the country.

The latest escalation began a few days ago when Iraqi troops tried to search the office of a Kurdish political party in Tuz Khurmato, 170 km (105 miles) north of the capital, triggering a clash with Peshmerga in which one passerby was killed.

Maliki has sparred more aggressively with Barzani since the withdrawal last year of U.S. troops who had served as a buffer between the federal Baghdad government and Kurdistan.

One of the major disputes revolves around Kurdistan's granting of contracts to foreign oil companies, which the central government says is illegal without its approval.

(Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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