The commander of Kurdish Peshmerga forces warned Tuesday that his troops might attack Iraqi government soldiers at "any minute" after the central government sent tanks and armored vehicles toward the disputed city of Kirkuk.
The threat was the latest sign of increasing tension between the autonomous Kurdish region and Baghdad after the central government sent forces last month to the area, including disputed sites in a new military command.
Already poor relations between the central government and Kurds worsened after an Iraqi government decision last month to set up a new military command there. The force also oversees disputed areas claimed by Iraqi Arabs, Turkomen and Kurds, in particular the areas surrounding Mosul and Kirkuk.
U.S. forces once supervised the area, helping Kurdish and Arab security forces form joint patrols.
"A big battle might erupt any minute," commander Mahmoud Sankawi told The Associated Press. His Peshmerga forces control security in the Kurdish autonomous region and are also present in disputed areas that Kurds seek to add to their self-ruled are. "We are on high alert. We will not allow any force to threaten the security of Kurdistan. We will resist them," he said.
Sankawi said overnight, some 30 Iraqi government tanks took up positions some 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Kirkuk. He said dozens of other tanks were positioned in the Hamrin mountain, some 95 miles (150 kilometers) from Kirkuk. The city lies on the outskirts of the autonomous Kurdish region.
The commander of Iraqi government forces in the area, Lt. Gen. Abdul-Amir al-Zaidi, told The Associated Press that three brigades of national police, one regiment of artillery and special forces were sent toward Kirkuk, but he would not say if the disputed city was their final destination.
"We have the right to go wherever we want to enforce the law, and if anybody stops us, we will use force," he said. Later, a spokesman said al-Zaidi would not make any further comments.
A senior government official denied Baghdad was trying to exacerbate tensions.
"If some Kurdish leaders try to escalate the situation, they will be held responsible," said the official who spoke anonymously, because he was not permitted to brief reporters. "Kurdish officials should not behave in a way that creates a problem."
Last Friday, Baghdad government forces and Kurdish guards clashed for the first time, sparked by a police hunt for a smuggler who sought refuge in a Kurdish political party office. A civilian was killed.
Iraq's central government and Kurds have had heated disputes over land, oil and power sharing since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
Also Tuesday, Iraqi President Jalal Talbani, a leading Kurdish figure, met the head of the autonomous region, Massoud Barzani, in the city of Irbil his spokesman said.