TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iraq’s prime minister on Thursday dismissed a proposal from the country’s Kurdish leaders to “freeze” the results of their independence vote last month as Iraqi government forces and Kurdish fighters traded fire near the country’s border with Turkey.
Haider al-Abadi’s office released the comments as the prime minister met with Iranian officials in Tehran, including the Islamic Republic’s supreme leader.
The timing shows the importance Iran has in Iraq in the years since the 2003 American-led invasion, both culturally and in the war against the Islamic State group — even as Sunni Arab countries and the United States remain eager to pull Baghdad into their political orbit.
Iraq’s central government “will accept only the cancelling of the referendum and following the constitution,” al-Abadi said in the statement.
The Iraqi Kurdish referendum last month overwhelmingly backed independence from Baghdad. Kurdish authorities held the vote in the three provinces that make up their autonomous region in northern Iraq, as well as in a string of territories claimed by Baghdad that were at the time controlled by the Kurds, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Though the referendum was non-binding, it has roiled tensions both with the central government and key regional players. The U.S., Turkey and Iran have all criticized the vote.
Sporadic fighting has erupted over the past week between Kurdish and Iraqi forces, former allies in the battle against the Islamic State group, as government forces, along with Shiite militiamen, retook the contested areas, including the city of Kirkuk.
After days of largely low-level clashes, Iraqi Kurdish leaders on Wednesday offered to freeze the referendum results to facilitate talks with Baghdad and end the violence.
Early on Thursday, the Kurdish leadership reported that Iraqi troops launched “an offensive” against Kurdish fighters near the border with Turkey.
Ahmed al-Asadi, a spokesman for the mostly Shiite militia fighters known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, said Kurdish troops opened fire on the Baghdad-led forces as they moved toward the borders. He told The Associated Press the clashes caused no casualties.
The Iraqi-Kurdish clashes prompted criticism Thursday from the U.S-led coalition, which said the fighting is hampering the movement of coalition military equipment in both Iraq and Syria and hurting the campaign against the Islamic State group.
The coalition uses the border between Iraq’s Kurdish region and Syria to access its Syrian allies, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, battling IS.
The fighting has “negatively impacted Coalition efforts to defeat ISIS, specifically the inability to move military equipment and supplies to our partners both in Iraq and Syria,” Army Col. Ryan Dillon told the AP. ISIS is an alternative acronym for IS.
In Tehran, al-Abadi met with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who has final say on all state matters. Khamenei’s website quoted the cleric as saying he supports efforts by the Iraqi government to ensure its “unified sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
“Be careful about Americans deceit and never trust them,” Khamenei told al-Abadi.
The Iraqi prime minister reportedly replied: “We protect the unity and integrity of Iraq with high precision.”
“As we told our brothers in Kurdistan in the past, we will not allow the danger of disintegration to put our country at risk,” al-Abadi added, referring to the autonomous northern Iraqi Kurdish region.
Earlier, al-Abadi attended an official reception hosted by Iran’s Senior Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri at a government estate north of Tehran.
“Tehran was next to Iraqi central government since the beginning of the referendum case,” Jahangiri said.
Iran and Iraq were once bitter enemies, as Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein waged an eight-year war on Iran in 1980s that killed more than 1 million people. But since Saddam’s overthrow, Iran increasingly has moved into a prominent role in Iraq, a Shiite-majority nation, especially in guiding Shiite militias against the Islamic State group.
Iran’s government in particular has concerns about the Kurdish referendum, especially as thousands of people flooded the streets of northwest Iran to celebrate the vote. The area has seen violence from Kurdish separatist groups and violent protests previously.
Also on Thursday, al-Abadi announced a multi-pronged operation to capture a series of towns and villages near the Iraqi-Syrian border from the Islamic State group. According to the statement, the operation aims to liberate Qaim and Rawa, as well as other villages — the very last remaining strongholds of IS militants in Iraq.
IS militants have only to choose “death or surrender,” said al-Abadi.
Iraqi state TV aired live footage showing military vehicles advancing in a wide desert area, along with the Shiite-dominated PMF.
IS has been driven out of most of the territories it seized in 2014, from northern Iraq through the country’s central region and across the western Anbar province. It has also suffered major setbacks in neighboring Syria, including the seat of its self-proclaimed “caliphate,” the city of Raqqa.
Salaheddin reported from Baghdad. Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.