ARBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi Kurdish officials gave conflicting accounts on Saturday of whether they would withdraw their Peshmerga fighters from a restive province outside the autonomous Kurdistan region.
A Kurdish government minister said the regional authorities had agreed to withdraw the troops from neighboring Diyala province, but another official said they would stay in place but take orders from the central government in Baghdad.
Kurdish officials have been negotiating with the central government over the presence of 4,000 Kurdish troops, known as Peshmerga, in northeastern Diyala province, a restive part of Iraq outside the Kurdish autonomous zone but home to many Kurds.
The issue is one of several that has increased tensions between Arabs and the minority Kurds in the border areas between Kurdistan and other parts of Iraq.
The Peshmerga, who evolved from guerrilla cadres fighting against Saddam Hussein into the official security force of the Kurdish autonomous region, have been patrolling ethnically Kurdish parts of the northeastern province for more than a year.
Jaffar Mustafa, Kurdistan’s Peshmerga minister, said they would withdraw within 10 days as part of a deal struck between the Kurds and Baghdad.
But Mustafa Sowrash, a senior official in the Kurdish PUK party and coordinator for Peshmerga forces in the Sulaimaniya region which borders Diyala, said the Peshmerga would stay in place and would be folded into regular Iraqi forces.
Diyala remains one of the bloodiest areas of Iraq at a time when overall violence in the country has declined sharply.
The province, with a religious mix of Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and an ethnic mix of Arabs and Kurds, has been the scene of a crackdown by U.S. and Iraqi government forces over the past few weeks, searching homes and arresting suspected militants.
Parts of Diyala are seen as being among the few remaining strongholds for Sunni Arab al Qaeda militants.
A spokesman for the Iraqi defense ministry in Baghdad said the Peshmerga would be integrated into a ministry division and based in Kurdistan from August 25.
“The 34th Peshmerga Brigade will leave Diyala to join the 15th mountain division within Kurdistan,” spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said.
Tensions between Kurds and other Iraqi groups have intensified in recent weeks over the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which Kurds want to make part of Kurdistan.
Parliament adjourned for a summer break earlier this month without passing a long-awaited provincial elections law because politicians could not agree on provisions that will shape the future of Kirkuk, home to a mix of Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs.
Reporting by Sherko Raouf in Sulaimaniya, Shamal Aqrawi in Arbil and Waleed Ibrahim and Wisam Mohammed in Baghdad; Writing by Missy Ryan, editing by Mark Trevelyan