Iraqi forces have captured oil fields and a military base held by Kurdish forces near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. The US, which backs both sides, urged their allies to deescalate the explosive situation.
raqi security forces and allied Shiite militia clashed with Kurdish peshmerga forces Monday around Kirkuk, an oil-rich area at the heart of disputes between the two sides.
Tensions between the two sides have escalated since the the Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly voted last month for an independent state in a non-binding referendum, which controversially included disputed territories such as Kirkuk.
Iraqi government and Iran-backed Shiite militia, known as Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), advanced to take control of oil fields, the airport and the strategically-important K1 military base in and around Kirkuk city, Iraq’s Joint Operations Command said.
Iraqi state TV reported that Iraqi forces had taken control of “vast areas” outside of Kirkuk city.
Kurdish peshmerga forces reportedly retreated back from positions outside the city, but were setting up defenses in the city as thousands of civilians fled in cars north to Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered security forces “to impose security in Kirkuk in cooperation with the population of the city and the peshmerga.” He said that instructions were given for forces to stay out of the city.
The Kurdistan Region Security Council claimed peshmerga had destroyed several US-supplied Humvees belonging to the PMU.
Hemin Hawrami, an adviser to Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, quoted the peshmerga command as saying Abadi’s government would “pay a heavy price” for the assult on Kirkuk.
The US Defense Department, which has supplied and trained both the peshmerga and Iraqi army, urged its two allies in the war against the “Islamic State” (IS) “to avoid additional escalatory actions.” It added that it opposed destabilising actions that distract from the battle against IS militants.
The Iraqi troops and the Kurdish peshmerga fighters have been engaged in a standoff since Saturday, when they took positions on opposite banks of a river on the southern outskirts of the city of Kirkuk.
The Kurdish forces were given a deadline of 2 a.m. local time Sunday (2300 UTC Saturday) to surrender their positions and return to their pre-June 2014 positions.