Iraqi government forces captured the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk on Monday, responding to a Kurdish vote on independence with a bold lightning strike that transforms the balance of power in the country.
A convoy of armoured vehicles from Iraq's elite US-trained Counter-Terrorism Force seized the provincial government headquarters in the centre of Kirkuk on Monday afternoon, residents said, less than a day after the operation began.
A dozen armoured vehicles arrived at the building and took up positions nearby alongside local police, residents said. They pulled down the Kurdish flag and left the Iraqi flag flying.
Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi ordered that the Iraqi flag be hoisted over Kirkuk and other disputed areas claimed by both the central government and the Kurds, who defied Baghdad to hold a vote for independence on September 25.
Baghdad described the advance as largely unopposed, and urged the Kurdish security forces known as Peshmerga to cooperate in keeping the peace. The Peshmerga said Baghdad would be made to pay "a heavy price" for triggering "war on the Kurdistan people".
Neither side gave a casualty toll for the operation. But an aid organisation working in Kirkuk said several Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and members of the Iraqi forces had been killed in an overnight clash south of Kirkuk - the only serious fighting reported.
Fighting between Baghdad and the Kurds could open an entirely new front in Iraq's 14-year-old civil war and potentially draw in regional powers such as Turkey and Iran.
US 'not taking sides'
President Donald Trump said the United States would not take sides in the clash but expressed disappointment the two sides were in conflict.
Foreign policy analyst Hasan Maged on Iraqi-Kurdish tensions
The US military said its commanders in Iraq were urging Iraqi and Kurdish forces to avoid escalation and played down reports of fighting.
"We support the peaceful exercise of joint administration by the central and regional governments, consistent with the Iraqi constitution, in all disputed areas," the US State Department said in a statement.
Trump told reporters at the White House: "We don't like the fact that they're clashing. We're not taking sides."
"We've had for many years a very good relationship with the Kurds as you know and we've also been on the side of Iraq, even though we should have never been there in the first place," he said.
Kurdish civilians flee
As Iraqi troops advanced towards Kirkuk, thousands of Kurdish civilians fled the city of 1 million people for fear of reprisals.
A Kurdish father of four who was driving out of Kirkuk towards the Kurdish regional capital Erbil to the north said: "We no longer feel safe. We hope to return to our home but right now we feel it's dangerous for us to stay."
A resident inside Kirkuk said members of the ethnic Turkmen community in the city of 1 million people were celebrating, driving in convoys with Iraqi flags and firing shots in the air. Residents feared this could lead to clashes with Kurds.
The fall of Kirkuk came as Turkey announced it is closing its air space to flights to and from the Iraqi Kurdish region.
The overnight advance was the most decisive step Baghdad has taken yet to block the independence bid of the Kurds, who have governed an autonomous part of Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and voted three weeks ago to secede.
Kirkuk, one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse cities in Iraq, 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.
State TV said Iraqi forces had also entered Tuz Khurmato, a flashpoint town where there had been clashes between Kurds and mainly Shiite Muslims of Turkmen ethnicity.
The "government of Abadi bears the main responsibility for triggering war on the Kurdistan people, and will be made to pay a heavy price", the Peshmerga command said in a statement, cited by Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani's assistant Hemin Hawrami.
The military action in Kirkuk helped spur a jump in world oil prices on Monday.
Oilfields near Kirkuk halted production, but Baghdad said it would quickly restart it. "We've got confirmation from military commanders that it's a matter of a very short time," a senior Baghdad oil official told Reuters. "Our brave forces will regain control of all Kirkuk oilfields and then we will restart production immediately."
(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS)
Date created : 2017-10-16