Iraq’s central government forces launched an advance early on Monday into territory held by Kurds, seizing a swathe of countryside surrounding the oil city of Kirkuk in bold military response to a Kurdish vote last month on independence.
The government said its troops had seized Kirkuk airport and had taken control of Northern Iraq’s oil company from the security forces of the autonomous Kurdish region, known as Peshmerga.
The military action was the most decisive step Baghdad has taken yet to rein in the independence aspirations of the Kurds, who have governed themselves as an autonomous part of Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and voted on Sept. 25 to secede.
“We call on the Peshmerga forces to serve under the federal authority as part of the Iraqi armed forces,” Prime Minister Haidar Abadi said in a statement which was read out on television. He ordered security forces “to impose security in Kirkuk in cooperation with the population of the city and the Peshmerga”, the statement said.
State television 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 Kurdish regional government did not initially confirm the Iraqi advances, but Rudaw, a major Kurdish TV station, reported that Peshmerga had left positions south of Kirkuk.
U.S. forces which have worked closely with both the federal forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga to fight against Islamic State called on both sides to avoid escalation.
The U.S.-led task international force in Iraq was “closely monitoring (the situation) near Kirkuk; urge all sides to avoid escalatory actions. Finish the fight vs. #ISIS, biggest threat to all,” a spokesman said on Twitter.
Bayan Sami Rahman, the Kurdish regional government’s representative in the United States, tweeted a plea for Washington to “use (its) leadership role to prevent war”.
The action in Iraq helped spur a jump in world oil prices on Monday.
BID FOR INDEPENDENCE
Baghdad considers last month’s Kurdish independence referendum illegal, especially as it was held not just in the autonomous region itself but in territory in northern Iraq, including Kirkuk, which the Kurdish Peshmerga occupied after driving out Islamic State fighters.
The Kurdish secession bid was strongly opposed by neighbours Iran and Turkey. Washington, allied with the Kurds for decades, had pleaded in vain for them to cancel the vote, arguing that it could lead to regional war and the breakup of Iraq.
Abadi’s government has been under strong pressure from Iran-backed militias from Iraq’s Arab Shi’ite Muslim majority to take military action to crush the Kurdish independence bid.
The government said its forces, including the elite U.S.-trained Counter Terrorism Service, had moved almost unopposed into the industrial zone just south of Kirkuk and the oil, gas, facilities located south and west of the city.
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 nearly all of Iraq’s government revenue.
The city of Kirkuk itself remained under Kurdish control, 12 hours after the start of the Iraqi operation, but two routes in and out were under control of the Iraqi forces.
“We have no orders to enter the city, just to secure the surroundings,” a military commander involved in the operation told Reuters, adding that the Kurdish forces had pulled out in an orderly manner from the position taken by the Iraqi forces.
Another military commander said: “Kurdish leaders we consider our brothers have agreed to hand over control of North Oil and North Gas company facilities that belong to the state.”
Although Iraqi officials portrayed the Kurds as retreating without a fight, Kurdish officials said Peshmerga had clashed with the “Popular Mobilisation”, Shi’ite forces trained and armed by Iran that operate alongside regular Iraqi troops.
The Peshmerga and Popular Mobilisation forces exchanged artillery fire south of Kirkuk, a Kurdish security official said. The official said the Peshmerga had pushed back two assaults by the Iraqi forces south of the city and destroyed several Humvees used by Popular Mobilisation.
Neither side provided a toll of casualties.
Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic city of more than a million people divided between Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen, is located just outside the autonomous Kurdish zone. Kurds consider it the heart of their homeland and say it was cleansed of Kurds and settled with Arabs under Saddam to secure control of the oil that was the source of Iraq’s wealth.
The fate of Kirkuk and the future of the Kurds were left unsettled 14 years ago when a U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam. During the years of U.S. occupation that followed, Washington leaned on its Kurdish allies to keep their ambitions in check to avoid triggering another war while Baghdad and the Kurds were jointly battling an insurgency by Sunni Arabs.
Since Islamic State 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.
Their leader Masoud Barzani said the time had come for an independence referendum and a demand for negotiations with Baghdad on a state. But the vote to secede crossed a red line in the region, where countries say a unilateral redrawing of the borders can never be permitted.
Turkey, which had developed a good working relationship with the Iraqi Kurds and let the landlocked region export oil through its pipes, has swung behind Baghdad, furious at a secession bid that might ignite similar demands from its own Kurds.
In a statement, Turkey said it would stand by Baghdad to provide peace and stability, and was ready to work with Iraq’s central authorities to end the presence of the outlawed Kurdish militant group PKK, which has fought an insurgency in Turkey. (Writing by Maher Chmaytelli and Peter Graff; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington)