Iraqi Forces Enter Disputed Kirkuk Region

Violet Powell
October 17, 2017

The multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk, home to one of Iraq's largest oil fields, was taken over by Kurdish Peshmerga forces in July 2014 after Iraqi government troops left the city ahead of a possible attack by radical Islamic State insurgents who have already seized two major Iraqi cities.

Baghdad described the advance as largely unopposed, and called on the Peshmerga to co-operate in keeping the peace.

"We salute and appreciate the courageous position of the peshmerga fighters who refused to fight their brothers in the Iraqi forces", Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq Shiite militia, backed by Iran, said on Twitter. The referendum was bitterly opposed by Iran, Baghdad and Turkey and has since led to a blockade of the region by all three powers.

The streets in Kirkuk city were deserted in the morning as people stayed in their houses or fled to KRG territory further north.

Residents feared this could lead to clashes with Kurds.

Tensions between the two sides have been running especially high since Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly voted for secession in a September 25 referendum that Baghdad rejected as illegal.

On Sunday, Tehran denied a claim from a Kurdish official that Iran had followed through on threats to close its border with Iraqi Kurdistan.

Abadi's spokesman Saad al-Hadithi said that Iraqi government forces "do not want to. harm citizens, be they Kurdish or otherwise, but they must enforce the constitution", which gives Baghdad control in the disputed areas and over exports.

State TV said Iraqi forces had also entered Tuz Khurmato, a flashpoint town where there had been clashes between Kurds and mainly Shi'ite Muslims of Turkmen ethnicity.

The Kurdistan Security Council stated that Baghdad is trying to secure the K-1 military base, the Kirkuk airport and the oilfields which are under the control of the Kurdish fighters.

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The rapid advance, involving troops, tanks and armoured vehicles, aims to recapture oil and military targets that Kurdish forces took over during the fightback against the Islamic State group (IS).

In Washington, DC on Monday, American legislators expressed concern over the fighting in Kirkuk, with the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee strongly condemning the Iraqi government for using arms and training supplied by America to attack a "valuable" U.S. partner. "We have only acted to fulfil our constitutional duty and extend the federal authority and impose security and protect the national wealth in this city", he said.

Bayan Sami Rahman, the Kurdish regional government's representative in the U.S., tweeted a plea for Washington to "use (its) leadership role to prevent war".

The short suspension in production helped push up world oil prices as the shutdown represented more than half of total Kurdish output.

The elite, US -trained "Counter Terrorism Service, the 9th armored division and Federal Police have taken control of vast areas of Kirkuk without confrontations", it said, adding that oilfields and Kurdish military positions were captured.

The US, UN and European Union had voiced concerns about the vote, while Turkey and Iran threatened to close their land borders with the Kurdistan region over the referendum.

"They chose their personal interests over Iraq's interests", he added. The city has a population of one million made up of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, the latter two communities hostile to Kurdish rule.

Iraqi oil industry officials said there was no disruption to production from the facilities of the North Oil Company, which is based in Kirkuk and one of the two main oil companies that together provide almost all of Iraq's government revenue.

The United States has taken the side of the Iraqi government in refusing to recognize the validity of the referendum.

Kurdish party headquarters inside Kirkuk had been abandoned. While Barzani's KDP strongly supported the independence referendum, some PUK figures were more circumspect. "We remain focused on destroying ISIS", he said. The Kurdish Rudaw news service said at least seven Iraqi militiamen were killed south of Kirkuk, citing an unidentified peshmerga commander.

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