10/26/2017, 14.10
IRAQ
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Tensions between Baghdad and Erbil worry Christians and hinder the return of displaced persons

Iraqi priest confirms "tension" in the north of the country, although he believes  an open conflict "unlikely". Baghdad rejects t Erbil's proposal to freeze referendum and asks for its "annulment". New clashes between army and Peshmerga, hundreds of Christian families flee, several wounded. New appeal to the bishops' dialogue.

Baghdad (AsiaNews) - The clashes between Kurdish militias and governmental army in northern Iraq "worries Christians" as they could "hinder the return of families" to the villages of the Nineveh plain, says Don Paolo Thabit Mekko, a 41-year-old Chaldean priest from Mosul.

He was commenting on the increasing tensions between Erbil and Baghdad; the new wave of violence threatens to reverse the Christian community, which after the years of exile caused by the Islamic State (IS, former Isis) were preparing to return to their homes and their lands. "The tension is high - he adds - but I believe  an escalation towards an open conflict is unlikely, because not all the Kurds agree with the independent drift of President [Masoud] Barzani."

The heavy clashes between the Iraqi army and Kurdish militaries (Peshmerga), were sparked by the independence referendum in the autonomous region on 25 September which ended with an overwhelming victory for in favor (over 90%). In response, regular troops launched an offensive in the territories - including  Kirkuk - controlled by the Kurds.

Yesterday Iraqi Kurdistan leaders proposed "freezing" the outcome of the referendum to launch negotiations with central government. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, said today they would only  accept "its annulment" and he called for a temporary halt to the independence movement. "We only accept - the premier added in a note - the annulment of the referendum and respect for the Constitution."

Meanwhile, the Iraqi army continues military operations against Kurdish militias in the north of the country. The latest attack took place this morning, in an area near the border with Turkey. The clashes also affected the towns of Baqopa and Tesqopa, on the Nineveh plain, involving Christian families. Local sources report that in Telescu the clashes caused several wounded civilians; hundreds of Christian families (up to 700 according to some eyewitnesses) have fled in the direction of Sharafiya and Alqosh, the hope is to return home as soon as possible at the end of the fighting.

"There is growing concern among Christians - emphasizes Don Paul - that this violence will negatively affect conditions for the return of displaced persons." In the battle areas, the head of the "Erbil Eyes" refugee camp, on the outskirts of the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, continues, "there is a strong fear: mortars have fallen on Teleskuf, people have fled to nearby villages ". In addition, fighting has made connections with Erbil "more difficult" and "closure of some roads creates several logistical and displacement problems."

Don Paolo hopes that the situation will "only be temporary" and calm will soon be restored, even though Baghdad's goal remains to "bring the Kurds back to within the blue line", the boundaries drawn before the US invasion of 2003 and the fall of Saddam Hussein. "Instead, to the east of Mosul, the situation is calmer - the priest concludes - and we are out of the line of attack. More than 3,000 families have returned to Qaraqosh in these months, about 270 to Karamles ".

Finally, Council of Iraqi Bishops ended yesterday in Baghdad, the two days of the, under the leadership of Chaldean Patriarch Louis Rapahel Sako and the presence, among others, of apostolic nuncio Alberto Ortega Martin. The crisis between Erbil and Baghdad was at the center of the discussions, as it is a source of great concern for the Iraqi Church. In the concluding statement, bishops urge local and national leaders to "engage in peace" through "sincere dialogue" and a "path based on justice, respect for the law and true citizenship", hoping for "unity and security" for the Nineveh Plains. (DS)

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