A spokesman of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (P.M.F.) has said that the paramilitary forces will “not rush to a civil war sought by” Iraqi Kurdistan’s President Masoud Barzani, but cautioned that P.M.F. forces will not “allow the separatists to take the Kurds from their Iraqi brothers.”  In an interview with Lebanese al-Mayadeen news outlet, Ahmad al-Assadi stressed that the Baghdad government and P.M.F. forces should take all necessary measures to recapture Kirkuk Province, which has been under the control of Kurdish Peshmerga forces since the emergence of the Islamic State in 2014. Assadi particularly emphasized on seizing regions in Kirkuk where most of the oil fields are located. The P.M.F. spokesman further noted that the paramilitary forces are present near Kirkuk to assist the Hawija offensive and are ready to carry out any mission ordered by the Baghdad government.

Comment: Since the Kurdish Regional Government held an independence referendum vote on Monday, several Iranian-supported P.M.F. commanders have threatened retaliatory measures against Erbil. Particularly, they have urged Baghdad to retake the oil-rich province of Kirkuk from Kurdish forces. “The Iraqi government should act with determination to liberate Kirkuk from separatist paramilitaries before it is too late,” Harakat al-Nujaba, an Iranian-sponsored group fighting in Iraq and Syria, said in a statement as Iraqi Kurds were casting their ballots. Hashim al-Mousavi, the group’s spokesperson, said the Baghdad government must not allow the Kurds to “steal Iraqis’ national wealth.”

Kata’ib Hezbollah, another Iranian-sponsored P.M.F. unit, made a similar threat. “Kurdistan’s referendum has no value and the resistance will take a series of measures to respond,” said Jafar al-Husseini, the spokesman of the group, said. “Officials in Kurdistan are American tools in Iraq and the region. Americans and the Zionist enemy are behind the separatism scenario of the Kurdistan region,” he added. The militia commander called K.R.G. President Masoud Barzani a “traitor” who “exploited” the emergence of the Islamic State to seize the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. He criticized the government of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for being “passive” toward Erbil in the past and urged Baghdad to act more decisively in the future.

Several Iran-aligned P.M.F. groups are taking part in the Hawija operation, including the Badr Organization and Harakat al-Nujaba. If tension between Baghdad and Erbil escalates further, Kirkuk may prove the first flashpoint between P.M.F. and Peshmerga forces.