Iraq Kurds Won't Give Up Territory, Leader Says

By Dow Jones Business News, 
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BAGHDAD--The leader of Iraq's Kurds said Friday that his forces won't relinquish territory they are defending against Sunni rebels, adding to worries that continued fighting could speed the breakup of Iraq along ethnic and religious lines.

After Sunni insurgents led by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham launched their military offensive in northern Iraq three weeks ago, Kurdish fighters stepped into the breach left by the federal government's ineffective and retreating armed forces.

On Friday, Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish region, said that control of Kirkuk and other towns now guarded by Kurdish forces wouldn't revert to the central government in Baghdad when the crisis subsides.

"Now this (issue)...is achieved," he said, alluding to the Kurds' long-running aspiration for self-rule in their northern Iraqi stronghold.

As Mr. Barzani's remarks underlined the fragility of the ties binding Iraq together, the country's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, warned against "plots to divide and disassemble" Iraq.

In comments delivered in a sermon by his spokesman, Ayatollah Sistani also urged Iraqi politicians to agree on new leaders before the scheduled opening of Iraq's new parliament on Tuesday.

Iraqi political officials were deep in negotiations over who to choose as the country's next prime minister, president and parliamentary speaker. Many Iraqis view these decisions as the last chance to reach a political solution to defuse the three-week-old rebellion led by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS.

The incumbent premier, Nouri al-Maliki, is seeking a third, four-year term as prime minister, but he is under pressure both at home and from abroad to step aside or, at the very least, broaden the base of the embattled Baghdad government that since 2006 has been dominated by representatives of Iraq's majority Shiite community.

Besides capturing cities and towns throughout the north and west, including Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, ISIS fighters have seized border posts with Syria and Jordan.

Uncorroborated reports of atrocities committed by ISIS rebels during the offensive were given some credence in a report issued late Thursday by Human Rights Watch, in which it said that there were "strong indications" that insurgents executed 160-190 captives after they seized control of the city of Tikrit on June 11.

The monitoring group's findings were based on an analysis of satellite imagery, as well as photos posted to a website, which featured captions claiming that ISIS fighters had executed 1,700 Shiites.

The death toll could be much higher, the group said in a statement.

"The photos and satellite images from Tikrit provide strong evidence of a horrible war crime that needs further investigation," said Peter Bouckaert, the organization's emergencies director.

Write to Matt Bradley at matt.bradley@wsj.com

Subscribe to WSJ: http://online.wsj.com?mod=djnwires


  (END) Dow Jones Newswires
  06-27-141145ET
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