Iran, Iraq hold exercises near Iraqi Kurdistan

3 min

Sulaimaniyah (Iraq) (AFP)

Iranian and Iraqi forces conducted joint military exercises on Monday near the border with Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region, a Kurdish official said, following tensions over the Kurds' independence vote.

Iraqi Kurds voted 92.7 percent in favour of independence on September 25 in a non-binding referendum held in defiance of the central government, which hit back in retaliation.

Following the vote, Iraq, Iran and Turkey -- which all have sizeable Kurdish minorities -- took a series of measures to isolate Iraqi Kurdistan, including the suspension of international flights to and from its two main airports.

"Iraqi and Iranian units began exercises at 11:00 am (0800 GMT) with tanks and infantry only 250 metres (yards) from the border," Shwan Abu Bakr, the Kurdish customs chief at the Bashmakh border post, told AFP.

"Iraqi forces are dressed in black and there is a large number of Iranian forces," he said, the black uniforms indicating that the Iraqi forces were from the country's elite Counter Terrorism Service.

The Iranian military on its website announced joint military exercises with units of the Iraqi army involving armour and artillery units as well as drones and other aviation.

It appeared the manoeuvres were the first joint military exercises between Iran and Iraq since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

An Iranian military official announced on Saturday that the two countries would hold a joint military exercise in response to the referendum.

Baghdad declared the ballot illegal and suspended flights in retaliation.

Turkey and Iran, which fear the vote will embolden their own sizeable Kurdish minorities, also threatened action against the Iraqi Kurds.

On Saturday Iranian armed forces spokesman Masoud Jazayeri told reporters the exercises would be held "in the coming days along the shared border".

- Tensions over referendum -

The decision to carry out the exercises followed a high-level meeting of Iranian commanders where "the territorial integrity and unity of Iraq and the illegitimacy of the independence referendum in northern Iraq were stressed again," he said.

Iraqi soldiers last week also took part in a Turkish military drill close to the Iraqi frontier.

The referendum was held in the three provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan and in several disputed areas under Kurdish control.

Iraqi authorities have demanded that Kurdish forces withdraw from disputed areas and that Kurdish authorities hand over control of the region's airports and border posts.

The Iraqi government on Monday demanded Kurdish authorities stop "provocations" in disputed territories.

Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi's office insisted the Kurdistan region halt movements of its peshmerga security forces and return Baghdad's control over areas Arbil claimed after a 2014 advance by the Islamic State group.

"The region must stop the escalation and provocation in areas seized by it," spokesman Saad al-Hadithi said in a statement.

Hadithi told AFP that Kurdish forces had declared that they would remain in several disputed areas and were continuing movements in the province of Nineveh that were meant to be "temporary".

"These movements have to cease," he said.

Officially comprising Arbil, Dohuk and Sulaimaniyah provinces, Iraqi Kurdistan also claims other territory including oil-rich Kirkuk province -- a dispute that is a major source of contention with Baghdad.

Hadithi demanded that Arbil "cancel the results of the referendum" and "engage in serious dialogue to strengthen the unity of Iraq".