Iraq's prime minister yesterday denied an attack on the Kurds was imminent, in a bid to defuse tensions that had prompted Kurdish peshmerga fighters to temporarily seal off road links with the rest of the country.
"We are not going to use our army to fight our people or to make war on our Kurdish citizens or others," Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said.
"Our duty is to preserve the unity of our country, to implement the constitution, and to protect citizens and national forces," he told a meeting of tribal leaders from the western province of Anbar.
The rise in tensions came two weeks after Kurdish voters overwhelmingly backed independence in a non-binding referendum that the central government condemned as illegal.
Iraqi Kurdish forces closed the two main roads connecting Arbil and Dohuk with the northern city of Mosul for several hours, a Kurdish military official said.
Kurdish authorities said late Wednesday they feared Iraqi government forces and allied paramilitary units were gearing up to launch an assault on the autonomous region.
"We're receiving dangerous messages that the Hashed al-Shaabi (paramilitary forces) and federal police are preparing a major attack from the southwest of Kirkuk and north of Mosul against Kurdistan," the Kurdistan Regional Government's Security Council said.
Security sources yesterday said that Iraq's elite Counter Terrorism Service and Rapid Response Force had deployed more forces near peshmerga positions around Rashad, a village some 65 kilometres (40 miles) southwest of Kirkuk city, a disputed area between the Kurds and Baghdad.
Iraq's Joint Operations Command, which groups all pro-government forces, played down the tensions, expressing confidence that dialogue would resolve the problem.
Asked if there had been movements of Iraqi forces close to peshmerga positions, Colonel Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the US-led coalition battling IS in Syria and Iraq, said: "We don't see that."
Central authorities severed ties between the Kurdish autonomous region and the outside world after the referendum by cutting international air links.
Neighbouring Turkey and Iran, which fear that Iraqi Kurdish moves towards independence could fuel demands from their own sizeable Kurdish communities, have also threatened to close their borders to oil exports.