WASHINGTON — President Trump declared Monday that the United States is not picking sides in the armed dispute between Iraqi Kurds and the government in Baghdad, an escalating feud that could complicate the final battlefield push to wipe out the so-called Islamic State.
“We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing. We’re not taking sides, but we don’t like the fact that they’re clashing,” Trump told reporters during a hastily called press conference in the White House Rose Garden.
The president had been asked about concerns that the Baghdad government’s military drive to retake the province of Kirkuk from Kurdish forces would escalate, potentially drawing in neighboring Turkey and Iran. The Kurdish minority, whose peshmerga forces have scored repeated victories over ISIS fighters, voted overwhelmingly three weeks ago for independence from Baghdad. The United States had urged the Kurds to postpone the nonbinding referendum, which Iraq’s central government dismissed as illegal.
“We’ve had, for many years, a very good relationship with the Kurds, as you know,” Trump said. “And we’ve also been on the side of Iraq, even though we should have never been there — we should never have been there — but we’re not taking sides in that battle.”
His comments came after Iraqi forces — troops, tanks and armored vehicles — retook the Kirkuk governor’s office and oil facilities from Kurdish separatists. In the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s ouster, Kurds in northern Iraq were given relative autonomy from the central government.
The U.S.-led military coalition against ISIS had staked out similarly neutral ground earlier in the day, saying that it was “not supporting Government of Iraq or Kurdistan Regional Government activities near Kirkuk.”
In a statement, the coalition said it was “aware of reports of a limited exchange of fire during predawn hours” — fighting that reportedly left some Kurdish fighters dead.
“We believe the engagement this morning was a misunderstanding and not deliberate as two elements attempted to link up under limited visibility conditions,” the coalition said in a statement that urged all sides to “avoid escalatory actions” and to “remain focused on the defeat of our common enemy, ISIS, in Iraq.”
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