Iraqi Forces, Near Kirkuk, Say They’ve Seized Key Sites – New York Times
KIRKUK, Iraq — Hours after moving to reclaim control of the northern city of Kirkuk, Iraqi government forces said Monday that they had reached the outskirts of the city, seizing oil fields and other important sites from Kurdish forces that had held the territory since 2014.
The quick advance pitted one American-trained military force against another. Iraqi government troops and the Kurdish forces, known as pesh merga, are both part of the American-led coalition battling the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
Divisions within the Kurdish command broke into the open, with officials from a Kurdish opposition party saying that its fighters had agreed to make way for the advancing Iraqi forces even as other forces continued to battle.
Iraqi commanders ordered the operation after a contentious independence vote on Sept. 25 in the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. Baghdad, Washington and most all international leaders condemned the referendum.
Iraq’s regional Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani, spearheaded the referendum and included areas whose legal status is constitutionally fraught, among them Kirkuk Province and its oil fields. Kurdish security forces loyal to his main political rival control many of the strategic points in Kirkuk, and in recent days emissaries from Baghdad had worked to negotiate their withdrawal.
Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the coalition in Baghdad, said all American forces in the area were watching the situation, but were out of the fighting. He said force protection measures had been imposed to ensure their safety.
“We are monitoring the situation closely and strongly urge all sides to avoid additional escalatory actions,” Colonel Dillon said. “We opposed violence from any party, and urge against destabilizing actions that distract from the fight against ISIS and further undermine Iraq’s stability.”
Military commanders in Baghdad said their troops had taken control of an industrial district on the western edge of Kirkuk, as well as a power plant and refinery adjacent to the oil fields outside the city. The military command also said government forces had secured control of a military airport west of the city.
Among the sites the Iraqi forces claimed was a military base known as K-1, northwest of Kirkuk. Iraqi officers interviewed near the base on Sunday said that American forces had used the facility in the past.
K-1 was the main military base in Kirkuk Province for Iraqi government troops when they abandoned their weapons and fled an assault by Islamic State militants.
On Monday, a Kurdish commander from the governing political party in the Kurdistan region said his forces had mounted a counterattack about 15 miles west of the city. He said reinforcements with “sophisticated weapons” had arrived to support Kurdish fighters in the area.
“They are preparing to liberate the area” from Iraqi forces, said the commander, Gen. Mohammed Raiger.
A statement released by the Kurdistan Region Security Council said pesh merga fighters had destroyed five American-supplied Humvees used by Iraqi forces, and would continue to resist them.
“This was unprovoked attack,” the statement said of the government military advance. The council is controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or K.D.P., led by Mr. Barzani, the region’s president.
But a leader of a rival Kurdish party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or P.U.K., said the party had agreed to vacate its military positions and hand them over to government forces early Monday morning. Wista Raool, commander of P.U.K. pesh merga forces south of Kirkuk, said the party sought to return the oil fields to the central government.
Mr. Raool accused Mr. Barzani and his party of “stealing” the oil from the central government. Many members of the P.U.K., which maintains its own pesh merga force, opposed the referendum vote because it was spearheaded by Mr. Barzani.
Iraqi military commanders said fighting broke out early Monday between advancing government forces and pesh merga fighters from Mr. Barzani’s faction, just as the P.U.K. forces were handing over their positions. The commanders spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to journalists.
Mr. Barzani’s supporters had vowed to fight any attempt by Iraqi forces to reclaim control of the Kirkuk area, which was captured by Kurdish forces after Iraqi troops fled an assault by Islamic State militants in 2014.
The Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, has demanded that Kurdish leaders surrender control of Kirkuk city and Kirkuk Province, the oil fields, and other disputed areas that Kurds took over amid the power vacuum. He repeatedly said in recent days that his government had no plans to attack Kurdish forces defending the Kirkuk area.
In a statement released Monday, Mr. Abadi said he had warned Kurdish leaders that the referendum would compel Baghdad to reclaim disputed areas, including Kirkuk and its oil fields. He said Mr. Barzani’s party was motivated by “personal and partisan interests.”
Mr. Abadi called on Iraqi civilians in and around the city of Kirkuk to support government forces and expose “those who want to cause bad blood and sedition among the people.”
Kurdish leaders have said that Baghdad moved a large number of troops to confrontation lines south of Kirkuk in early October, after the coalition drove Islamic State militants from their last major urban stronghold in Iraq: the city of Hawija, about 40 miles southwest of Kirkuk.
The independence vote strained relations not only between the Kurdish authorities and Baghdad, but also between the Kurds and Washington. The American government had adamantly opposed the referendum, saying it would undermine the fight against Islamic State militants, foment ethnic divisions and create instability in Iraq.
Mr. Barzani rejected an American proposal last month to cancel the referendum and enter negotiations with Baghdad facilitated by the United States.
On Monday, residents of the city of Kirkuk said that pesh merga forces from the P.U.K. were patrolling the city, but that the local and federal police had taken responsibility for public safety. No fighting was reported inside the city, home to Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens.
The city’s police chief, Gen. Khatab Omar, said in an interview inside his police compound on Sunday that he was worried about clashes between rival ethnic groups in the city. He said he had posted police units outside the headquarters of several political parties.
Reporting was contributed by Falih Hassan and Omar al-Jawoshy from Baghdad, Margaret Coker from London, and Kamil Kakol from Sulaimaniya, Iraq.
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