Kurdish and Iraqi forces clash for the rest of Kirkuk district

An Iraqi soldier removes a Kurdish flag from Altun Kupri, 40 kilometers north of the city of Kirkuk. Iraqi and Kurdish forces exchanged fire on their shared border on Friday, ending a dramatic week of maneuvers that saw the Kurds cede northern Iraqi territory. (Emad Matti / AP)

Iraqi and Kurdish forces exchanged heavy fire on Friday as Iraqi troops backed by allied militias captured the rest of the district in the disputed Kirkuk province.

The two sides, close military partners in the fight against Islamic State, turned their arms early Friday, marking the most violent clashes since the Iraqi military launched a campaign last week to reclaim areas it she lost in 2014.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces initially withdrew from large areas of the province at the start of the Iraqi military march on the city of Kirkuk. Groups of Peshmerga fighters held their ground on Friday and attempted to stop the Iraqi advance with rockets and mortars, Iraqi and Peshmerga commanders said.

In the late afternoon, the Peshmerga forces withdrew and troops from the Iraqi Counterterrorism Service, the Federal Army and Police, as well as members of a powerful Iran-backed Shiite militia entered. and took control of Altun Kupri, a small town about 40 kilometers northwest of Kirkuk City. They also took control of the main checkpoint on the road leading to the Kurdish capital of Erbil, the Iraqi army said in a statement.

Colonel Muntathar al-Shimaari, a commander of the counterterrorism service, called the Kurdish resistance moderate and said that the city “would be the last zone of advance”.

Lt. Gen. Jabbar Yawar, secretary general of the Peshmerga ministry, admitted that Iraqi forces had taken control of Altun Kupri and said small clashes were underway in neighboring villages on Friday evening.

He warned that any further progress would meet fierce resistance.

“They are at the walls of Erbil, which is completely unacceptable to us,” he said of Iraqi forces.

The assault capped a swift campaign by Baghdad to impose its rule over areas of the country that had been taken over by the semi-autonomous Kurdish regional government in 2014, as the Iraqi army crumbled in the face of the attack on the country. ‘Islamic State. Iraqi forces have now taken control of the oil fields in Kirkuk province, which were a major source of income for the Kurdish government, as well as areas where the majority of the population is Kurdish, raising fears of massive displacement.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the United States was concerned about the clashes in northern Iraq. She called on the Iraqi federal government to limit the movement of forces in disputed areas to promote calm.

“We are monitoring the situation closely and call on all parties to cease all violence and provocative movements, and to coordinate their activities to restore calm,” Nauert said in a statement.

“The reaffirmation of federal authority over the disputed areas does not change their status – they remain disputed until their status is resolved in accordance with the Iraqi constitution,” Nauert said. “Until the parties reach a resolution, we urge them to fully coordinate the security and administration of these areas.”

The Trump administration has encouraged Baghdad and the Kurdish government to hold talks.

“The United States remains committed to a united, stable, democratic and federal Iraq, and attached to the Kurdistan regional government as an integral part of the country,” Nauert said.

The move follows a Kurdish referendum on independence held last month which was vigorously opposed by the Iraqi central government, as well as the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, Turkey and Iran. The vote took place not only in the Kurdish regions, but also in Kirkuk and other disputed territories, troubling the Iraqi government, Turkey and Iran, who all decided to isolate the Kurdish region.

The military takeover of Kirkuk was complicated by the presence of powerful militias funded and supplied by Iran, which led to speculation and accusations from Kurdish officials that Baghdad was operating under the influence of Iran. Tehran. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the move to Kirkuk was necessary to preserve Iraq’s territorial integrity.

President Trump has said the United States will remain neutral in the conflict between the two American allies, which has led to accusations of treason by some Kurdish officials and their supporters in Washington.

Anne Gearan in Washington contributed to this report.

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