Iraqi forces launch ‘major’ operation in Kirkuk | Kurdish News

Iraqi forces have launched a major multi-pronged offensive aimed at retaking the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk, allegedly claiming “many casualties” in fighting south of the city.

The federal army, backed by Shiite militias, said on Monday it took control of the city’s international airport, as well as an oil field, the strategic military base K1 and the district of Taza Khormatu in the south-west. east of Kirkuk.

Kurdish forces known as the Peshmerga dug in at the edge of the airport after retreating from their positions outside the northern city.

Hundreds of armed Kurdish residents were taking position inside the city in anticipation of an attack.

Residents of the multi-ethnic city, home to an estimated one million Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Christians, stayed indoors and said they heard sporadic explosions they said sounded like shelling and rocket fire.

The Kurdistan Region Security Council said in a statement that the peshmerga destroyed at least five Humvee armored vehicles used by state-sanctioned militias following the attack south of the city.

An Iraqi Kurdish commander said fighting with Kurdish forces resulted in “many casualties”, without providing a specific figure.

Brigadier General Bahzad Ahmed said Iraqi troops “burned many houses and killed many people” in Tuz Khurmatu and Daquq, south of the disputed town.

His claims could not be independently verified.

“Protect national unity”

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement that the offensive was aimed at protecting national unity.

“It is my constitutional duty to work for the benefit of the citizens and to protect our national unity which has been threatened with fragmentation following the referendum organized by the Kurdish region,” Abadi said.

“The referendum came at a time when the country is struggling against terrorism which has manifested itself in the form of ISIL. We tried to urge (the Kurds) not to violate the constitution and to focus on the fight against ISIL, but they did not listen… They chose their personal interests over the interests of Iraq .

The Prime Minister also assured the people of Kirkuk that their security was Iraq’s priority, while calling on Kurdish forces to align themselves with the federal army.

“And we are just fulfilling our duty of keeping the city safe for the various Iraqi factions. We urge all citizens to cooperate with our heroic armed forces…to establish security in the region.

“We call on the peshmerga forces to perform their duties under the central command of the Iraqi Armed Forces,” he said.

“Unprovoked attack”

The KRSC said in its statement that “the peshmerga will continue to defend Kurdistan, its people and its interests”.

“This was an unprovoked attack after days of Iraqi military deployments on Kurdistan’s borders.”

Hemin Hawrami, senior assistant to the President of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), Masoud Barzani, also said on Twitter that the peshmerga forces had been ordered “not to start any war, but if an advancing militia started firing”, then they had the “green light to use all powers” ​​to react.

Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Erbil, said Kurdish forces in and around Kirkuk “are sworn to defend it to the last man”. He added that the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk allegedly called on residents to arms, “saying that anyone with a weapon should take it and defend the city”.

The Iraqi military said the operation was led by the 9th Armored Division, federal police and counter-terrorism units, Stratford reported.

“They say thousands of Shia militias are playing a supporting role,” he said.

The launch of the operation followed a tense confrontation between the two sides amid a growing row following a contentious September 25 referendum on Kurdish secession.

“It seems that all diplomatic efforts have failed,” Stratford said, calling the development spurt “very worrying.”

“Despite repeated denials from the Iraqi military that they were going to move into the city and retake these oil fields, it definitely looks like it is happening now.”

Rising tensions

Kurdish peshmerga forces have taken control of oil-rich Kirkuk after the Iraqi army fled a major offensive by the armed group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) in 2014.

Since then, there has been no agreement between the KRG and the federal government in Baghdad over who should control the region – and also benefit from its vast oil wealth.

“Kirkuk is extremely important for the KRG and the Iraqi federal government”, said Stratford.

It is one of the two main oil-producing regions of the country, which holds around 4% of the world’s oil resources.

Tensions between the two sides have been particularly high since Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly voted for secession in last month’s referendum that Baghdad rejected as illegal.

The non-binding ballot took place in areas under KRG control and in a handful of disputed territories, including Kirkuk.

Shortly after the referendum, the Iraqi parliament asked al-Abadi to send troops to Kirkuk and regain control of the region’s oil fields.

Kurdish leaders on Sunday rejected a request from Baghdad to overturn the referendum result as a precondition for talks to resolve the dispute.

“As long as the Kurds were prepared to stay in Iraq, who controls Kirkuk and the Kirkuk oil fields was not such a critical issue,” said Feisal Istrabadi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University. from Indiana. Jazeera.

“After the referendum, when we talk about independence when there is a de facto Kurdish presence in Kirkuk, the stakes have become much higher – and this is unfortunately the result”, he added, making reference to the military operation.

READ MORE: A look at Iraq’s contested Kirkuk

The province of Kirkuk lies outside the official borders of the semi-autonomous territory of the Kurds. It is home to Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens and Christians.

The vast majority of Turkmens and Arabs who have lived in Kirkuk for generations boycotted the referendum.

“There are a lot of Kurds who call it their Jerusalem,” Stratford said, “but there is also considerable opposition among Arabs and Turkmens to any idea about incorporating Kirkuk into a future independent Kurdish state. “

Later in the day, the United States called on Iraqi and Kurdish forces to avoid escalation and look to dialogue to resolve their differences.

“We oppose violence from any party and urge against destabilizing actions that distract from the fight against ISIS and further undermine Iraq’s stability,” said Laura Seal, spokesperson. word of the Pentagon.

“We continue to support a unified Iraq,” she added. “Despite the unfortunate decision of the Kurdistan Regional Government to hold a unilateral referendum, dialogue remains the best option to defuse persistent tensions and long-standing issues, in accordance with the Iraqi constitution.

Seal also urged “all actors” in the region to focus on the common ISIL threat and avoid stoking tensions among the Iraqi people. Both Iraqi and Kurdish forces were trained and armed by the United States.

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