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Kurdish Forces Withdraw From Edges of Disputed Iraqi Region

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Haider Al-Abadi

"Certainly the KRG government is very anxious", he said.

Iraq's government has taken a series of measures to isolate the region since the Kurds' Sept. 25 referendum on independence, including banning worldwide flights from going there and pushing for a halt to its crude oil sales.

Tension has steadily mounted between Baghdad and Erbil since September 25, when Iraqis in KRG-controlled areas - and in a handful of disputed areas - voted to declare political independence.

Iraqi forces and Shiite Muslim paramilitaries - known as Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) - were deployed south and west of Kirkuk, after having recaptured the areas from IS.

"The security situation is stable and there have been no incidents so far", said police chief, General Khattab Aref of Kirkuk city, home to more than a million Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen.

"We withdrew to our lines in the area around Kirkuk and we will defend the city in the event of an attack", he told a news conference.

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The Kurds took control of Kirkuk when the Islamic State group swept across northern Iraq in 2014 as the Iraqi military crumbled. At the time, peshmerga fighters were among the only groups to stand their ground against and eventually repel the IS militants.

Another officer, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, stressed the army had no intentions to enter Kirkuk, and that there were no confrontations outside the city. "If the Iraqi army advances, we will fight".

Rassoul Omar, another peshmerga general, said his fighters were mobilising south of Kirkuk.

Hours before it was to begin, the northern Iraqi administration mobilized additional Peshmerga forces to Kirkuk with a view to securing the illegal referendum. This stopped the region's oil fields from falling under jihadi control.

"Baghdad would do better to find another way to resolve the problems than send troops", he said.

Polling was held in the three provinces that have long formed an autonomous Kurdish region as well as neighbouring areas, including Kirkuk, that Kurdish forces seized from ISIL during the fightback against the jihadists' 2014 offensive through areas north and west of Baghdad.

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