The Iraqi military says its forces have taken control of a key air base north of the disputed city of Kirkuk along with an airport, an oil company and other positions in areas around the city.
The security forces retook control of the K1 air base from Kurdish fighters Monday following a call by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for pro-government fighters to “impose security on Kirkuk.”
Abadi said in a message to the nation that he had a duty to act following a Kurdish independence referendum that he described as putting Iraq “in danger of partition.”
“We have only acted to fulfill our constitutional duty to extend federal authority and impose security and protect the national wealth in this city, which we want to remain a city of peaceful coexistence for all Iraqis,” he said.
Iraqi state television reported that government troops had taken control of “vast areas” in Kirkuk province overnight. Kurdish officials disputed that account, but said Iraqi security forces backed by militias were involved in a “major, multi-pronged operation” meant to enter Kirkuk city and seize the air base and oil fields.[xyz-ihs snippet=”adsense-body-ad”]The Kurdistan Regional Security Council said the pro-government fighters had advanced from Taza Khurmatu, about 10 kilometers south of Kirkuk, to launch an “unprovoked attack” on Peshmerga forces.
A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, Col. Ryan Dillon, told VOA “We are monitoring the situation (in Kirkuk) closely and strongly urge all sides to avoid additional escalatory actions.” He also urged “against destabilizing acts that distract” from the fight against Islamic State.
A coalition statement said it believes the “engagement” between the two sides Monday was a “misunderstanding and not deliberate.”
Kurds have controlled Kirkuk city since pushing out Islamic State fighters who swept into Iraq in 2014, and have long disagreed with the central government over who should control areas in the surrounding province, including its oil fields.
Tensions rose further three weeks ago when the government of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region held the independence referendum that was overwhelmingly approved by those who voted.
Abadi’s government rejected the referendum as illegal, as did neighboring Turkey and Iran, which also have large Kurdish populations.
The United States said the vote lacked legitimacy and that it supports a “united” Iraq.
During the multi-national fight against Islamic State, the United States has provided military supplies and training to both the Iraqi armed forces and the Peshmerga.
VOA’s Carla Babb contributed to this report.