Erbil, Iraq – An international marathon scheduled to take place in northern Iraq has been cancelled amid concerns over security, as tensions between Baghdad and Erbil continue to rise.
Billed as a show of, “love, peace and non-violence in Iraq”, the Erbil International Marathon was cancelled on Friday as exchanges of fire continued south of Erbil between the Iraqi army and allied Shia militias on one side, and Kurdish Peshmerga forces on the other. Runners instead followed shorter 5km and 10km routes through the Kurdish capital Erbil, surrounded by heavily armed guards.
Some 550 international runners had been unable to enter Iraq’s Kurdish region to participate in the marathon due to the Iraqi government’s closure of airports in Erbil and Sulaimania, following a controversial secession referendum in September.
“For local people, these clashes and the recent security situation is the main reason for not taking part in the event. In the past, we had hundreds of people coming from all regions in the north, but now it is just tens,” event organiser Abdulsattar Younus told Al Jazeera.
“Most of the people running the full marathon were international – people were coming from as far as Japan, the UK and Canada. They had booked tickets and hotels … [but] there was no signal that the airports could reopen … We are very disappointed in this punishment from Iraq, and it is not fair. These airports are civilian.”
Among those who participated in the shorter runs, however, the mood was jubilant. Ahmed Rahman, an 18-year-old high school student from Erbil, said that the scene of hundreds of locals out running together instilled in him a sense of safety: “When you run, you are raising a flag of peace and co-existence,” he told Al Jazeera.
Also on Friday, Iraqi forces set a deadline for Kurdish fighters to withdraw from an area on the Turkish border critical for oil exports, a government source told the AFP news agency.
The senior security source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Kurdish Peshmerga forces were being given “a few hours” to pull out of the area around the Fishkhabur border post.
The security situation has been in decline since September’s referendum. This month, Iraqi forces retook Kirkuk, a disputed territory that had been in Kurdish hands since 2014, when the Iraq army fled from a lightning advance by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL, also known as ISIS).
On Thursday, the Kurdistan Region Security Council issued a statement noting that Iraqi forces and allied Shia militias had begun “an unprovoked, four-pronged assault on Peshmerga positions” in northwestern Mosul, noting: “Peshmerga forces will [continue] defending their positions against Iraq’s wanton aggression and will continue to protect the region and its peoples.”