Iraqi forces seize city of Kirkuk from Kurds

Iraq has taken control of key areas of the dispute city of Kirkuk, seizing the global airport, a key oil field and a military base in what is an oil-rich area bordering the Kurdistan Region. But the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) insisted it was legitimate. Baghdad viewed the referendum as unconstitutional and has vowed to reassert control over disputed territories, with Kirkuk at the center of the dispute.

Both the central government and the Kurds share an interest in keeping oil flowing from northern Iraq, so markets would probably calm down quickly after any interruption in these exports, according to Manaar's Altaie.

The Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Abadi, directed the Armed Forces to impose security in Kirkuk in cooperation with residents of Kirkuk and the Peshmerga forces.

Kurdish leaders who met to discuss the crisis in the town of Dokan renewed their offer to "resolve peacefully" the crisis with Baghdad, Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani's aide, Mr Hemin Hawrami, said. On Monday, an Iraqi government spokesman confirmed that Gen. Qassem Soleimani - who commands the IRGC's elite Quds Force that focuses on foreign operations - was serving with Hashd al-Shaabi as a "military adviser".

The US has been closely allied to the Kurds in Iraq and Syria, but strongly opposed the independence referendum which it saw as provocative and divisive.

Kurdish forces have been in control of six fields in the Kirkuk region providing some 340,000 of the 550,000 barrels per day exported by the regional administration.

Kurdish officials accused the Iraqi army of carrying out a "major, multi-prong attack", and reported heavy clashes on the city's outskirts, but a spokesman for Iraq's state-backed militias said they encountered little resistance.

The withdrawal of part of the Kurdish forces is ultimately a reflection of deep divisions between the Kurdish leaders and their parties, whose rivalry has always been intense.

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"It's comical, really", said a Kurdish official with the KDP, talking about US silence given the presence of Iran-supported militias in the advance.

Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga forces early yesterday exchanged artillery fire south of the capital of the province, after the launch of the operation on Sunday night.

Although Iraqi officials portrayed the Kurds as retreating without a fight, Kurdish officials said Peshmerga clashed with the "Popular Mobilisation", Shiite forces trained and armed by Iran that operate alongside regular Iraqi troops. "We regret that some PUK officials helped in this plot", it said.

The status of Kirkuk and fate of the Kurds were left unsettled 14 years ago when a US-led invasion toppled Saddam.

Last Friday, US President Donald Trump announced that the IRGC was the target of new American sanctions, describing Iran's leading military institution as the "corrupt personal terror force and militia" of the regime's supreme leader that has "hijacked" large portions of the economy "to fund war and terror overseas".

During the years of US occupation that ensued, Washington leaned on its Kurdish allies to keep their ambitions in check to avoid triggering another war amid an insurgency by Sunni Muslim Arabs.

Since IS fighters swept across a third of Iraq in 2014 and were finally driven out of their main Iraqi stronghold earlier this year, the Kurds have found themselves in their strongest position on the ground for generations. But the vote crossed a red line in the region, where countries say a unilateral redrawing of the borders can never be permitted.

Pro-PUK forces were deployed south of the city, including at oil fields, while fighters loyal to the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party, linked to Iraqi Kurd leader Massud Barzani who initiated the referendum, were deployed to the north. And while Iraq's oil revenues are supposed to be shared, disputes among the provinces have often held up transfers, leading parties to find leverage in holding the fields.

  • Sonia Alvarado