Forces start moving at midnight on Sunday towards oil fields and an air base amid rising tensions after Kurds vote for independence.
Iraqi forces were reported to be advancing on Kirkuk after the prime minister of Iraq, Haidar al-Abadi, ordered his army to “impose security” on the oil-rich Kurdish city.
Kurdish and Iraqi officials reported that forces began moving at midnight on Sunday towards oil fields and an important air base held by Kurdish forces near the city.
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.
There were unconfirmed reports from Peshmerga commanders of clashes south of Kirkuk, around Taza Khurmatu, Rudaw reported, with both sides exchanging fire involving heavy weaponry. One Kurdish official claimed to have twice pushed back Iraqi forces.
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 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.
Neither side reported any armed confrontation one hour after the initial report of the Iraqi advance.