Iraqi forces drive Kurds out of disputed areas near Kirkuk

KIRKUK, Iraq – Iraqi Kurdish officials said Monday morning that federal forces and state-backed militias had launched a “major multi-pronged” attack aimed at retaking the disputed northern city of Kirkuk, many casualties” in the fighting south of the city.

The Kurdistan Region Security Council said in a statement that Kurdish forces known as the peshmerga destroyed at least five US-supplied Humvees used by state-sanctioned militias following the the “unprovoked attack” south of the city.

Inside Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic city home to more than a million people, residents holed up in homes and said they heard sporadic explosions they said sounded like shelling and gunfire of rockets.

Brig. General Bahzad Ahmed, spokesman for Kurdish forces, said federal forces seized an oil and gas company and other industrial areas south of Kirkuk during fighting with Kurdish forces which caused ” many victims”, without providing a precise figure.

He said Iraqi forces had “burnt many houses and killed many people” in Toz Khormato and Daquq, south of the disputed town. He said the Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, “destroyed one or two of their tanks”. His claims could not be independently verified.

The Iraqi Interior Ministry said in a brief statement that federal forces had taken control of a power plant, a police station and industrial areas near Kirkuk. He provided no further details of the fighting or casualties in what he called Operation Enforce Security in Kirkuk.

Tensions have skyrocketed since the Kurds held a non-binding referendum last month in which they voted for independence from Iraq. The central government, along with neighboring Turkey and Iran, rejected the vote.

The United States has supplied and trained the Iraqi Federal Forces and the Peshmerga, both of which are fighting the Islamic State group. The United States also opposed the referendum and urged both parties to remain focused on defeating extremists.

US Army Col. Ryan Dillon, spokesman for the US-led coalition, tweeted that they were “monitoring the situation closely. near Kirkuk; urge all parties to avoid escalation actions. Finish the fight against #ISIS, the greatest threat to all. ISIS is another acronym for the Islamic State group.

The central government and the northern Kurdish autonomous region have long been divided over oil revenues and the fate of disputed territories like Kirkuk, controlled by Kurdish forces but located outside their autonomous region.

The Kurds took control of Kirkuk, the heart of a major oil-producing region, in the summer of 2014 when IS militants swept through northern Iraq and the country’s armed forces collapsed.

Iraq has since rebuilt its armed forces with considerable help from the United States, and they are battle-hardened and poised for victory after driving IS out of most of the territory it once held.

The Kurdish security council said the assault launched on Sunday evening was aimed at entering the city and retaking the K-1 military base and nearby oil fields.

State broadcaster Al-Iraqiya previously reported that federal forces entered parts of the countryside outside Kirkuk without meeting resistance. However, some townspeople and an Iraqi militia commander reported shelling.

Al-Iraqiya released a statement from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s office saying he had ordered federal forces “to impose security in the city in cooperation with the residents and the peshmerga”, indicating that he was willing to share the administration.

A Kurdish local police commander said his forces still control disputed oil wells in the province. “There has been no agreement to hand over the wells so far. As for the future, I don’t know,” Bahja Ahmad Amin said.

Iraqi state-sanctioned militias, the mostly Shia Arab Popular Mobilization Forces, have been ordered to stay out of the city, al-Abadi’s office says, and instead hold positions in the countryside. They are viewed with deep suspicion by Kurdish residents, who see them as beholden to Iran rather than the central Iraqi government. The predominantly Shiite militias are sponsored and guided by Tehran.

Ercuman Turkman, a PMF commander, said shortly before the forces began to intervene that he expected to receive orders about Kirkuk’s oil wells, its airport and the K-1 military base in nearby, but not on the city. Haytham Hashem, another PMF commander, reported shelling on his position at Toz Khormato, 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the outskirts of Kirkuk city.

Baghdad has been turning the screws on the Kurdish region since the September referendum, pushing Kurdish leaders to disavow the vote and accept shared administration of Kirkuk.

The Iraqi government has banned international flights to and from the region and asked neighboring Turkey and Iran to close their borders. Iran closed its three official crossing points with the Kurdish region on Sunday, Kurdish media reported. It also froze currency transfers to four banks operating in the Kurdish region.

Al-Abadi demanded shared administration of Kirkuk. His cabinet said on Sunday that fighters from the Turkish Kurdish insurgency, the PKK, were beginning to appear in Kirkuk, and said it would amount to an act of war.

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Associated Press writers Emad Matti in Irbil, Iraq, and Philip Issa in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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