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Iraqi army clashes with Kurds in operation to ‘impose security’ on Kirkuk

Forces started moving at midnight on Sunday towards oil fields and an air base amid rising tensions after Kurds vote for independence



Iraqi forces have reportedly advanced on Kirkuk’s oil fields and air base after the prime minister of Iraq, Haidar al-Abadi, ordered his army to “impose security” on the Kurdish city in the wake of a recent vote for independence.

Kurdish and Iraqi officials both reported that forces began moving at midnight on Sunday, with state TV reporting “vast areas” of the region had been seized, a claim disputed by the Kurds.

However, military sources on both sides reported exchanges of Katyusha rocket fire to the south of the provincial capital. Multiple Kurdish peshmerga fighters were injured in the clashes, a local security source told Agence France-Presse.

The governor of Kirkuk, Najmaldin Karim, urged the public to come out onto the streets and voiced his confidence that Peshmerga forces would be able to protect the city. “We saw some of the young people who expressed their readiness to help their Peshmerga brothers to defend the land,” he told Rudaw, a Kurdish media network.

The US defense department urged Iraqi and Kurdish forces “to avoid additional escalatory actions” that would detract from the battle against Islamic State militants. The US provided weapons to both the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga to fight Isis.

Later on Sunday, the US state department said it was “very concerned” about reports of a confrontation and was “monitoring the situation in Kirkuk closely”.

World oil prices jumped on Monday amid reports of the clashes.

Kurdish president Masoud Barzani, has ordered his forces not to initiate a conflict but to respond if attacked, Hemin Hawrami, a senior assistant to the president, was quoted as saying.

Al-Iraqiya TV said Iraqi military, anti-terrorist units and federal police had taken control of some areas around the city, advancing without firing a shot. The objective was to take control of the K1 airbase, west of Kirkuk, Lieutenant Colonel Salah el-Kinani of the Iraqi army’s 9th armoured division said.

A photographer with Agence France-Presse reported seeing columns of Iraqi troops heading north from the town of Taza Khurmatu, which lies south of Kirkuk.

Tensions in the area began rising several weeks ago, when the country’s Kurds voted for independence from Baghdad. The referendum was bitterly opposed by Iran, Baghdad and Turkey and has since led to a blockade of the region by all three powers.

On Friday, Kurdish and Iraqi government rushed troops and armour to the city. Peshmerga forces massed about 20 miles from Kirkuk’s southern limits after units loyal to the central government took positions on the city’s approaches, prompting fears of fresh violence in one of the most bitterly contested corners of Iraq.

At the time, the likelihood of an imminent battle for the ethnically diverse city had dissipated, with political leaders on both sides trying to calm nerves. Al-Abadi, who is commander-in-chief of the country’s military, insisted he had no plans to launch an attack.

Following Sunday’s reported advance, the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) security council said: “Iraqi forces and Popular Mobilisation [a paramilitary group] are now advancing from Taza, south of Kirkuk, in a major operation; their intention is to enter the city and take over K1 base and oil fields.”

A commander of the local Kurdish police force said Kurds remained in control of Kirkuk province’s oil wells.

Kurdish fighters seized Kirkuk in mid-2014, after Iraqi forces had fled from the Islamic State extremists advancing towards them after sacking Mosul.

The Guardian

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