KIRKUK, IRAQ – Kurdish forces have deployed to new areas of a disputed province in north Iraq in what a top officer said Saturday was an attempt to move into oil fields, and the death toll from five days of unrest rose to at least 215 people.
The deployments increased tensions in Iraq, adding a long-running Arab-Kurd dispute over territory to a standoff between Sunni Arab protesters and the Shiite-led government that has descended into bloody violence.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki pointed to the civil war in neighboring Syria as the cause of what he termed renewed sectarian strife in Iraq. The head of the Sahwa militia forces, which oppose al-Qaida, threatened all-out conflict if militants who killed Iraqi soldiers are not handed over.
Jabbar Yawar, secretary general of Iraqi Kurdistan region’s Security Ministry, said in a statement, “After consultations with the governor of Kirkuk, there has been a decision for ‘peshmerga’ (security) forces to fill the vacuums in general, and especially around the city of Kirkuk.”
Oil-rich Kirkuk Province and its eponymous capital are a key part of territory that Kurdistan wants to incorporate, over strong objections from the federal government in Baghdad. Diplomats and officials say the dispute is a major threat to long-term stability.
Yawar said the peshmerga deployments were aimed at combating militants and protecting civilians, but Iraqi Army officers ascribed other motives to the moves. “They want to reach (Kirkuk’s) oil wells and fields,” said Staff Gen. Ali Ghaidan Majeed, the commander of Iraqi ground forces.