Iraq launches advance on Kurdish territory in bold strike after independence vote

Iraq launches advance on Kurdish territory in bold strike after independence vote

Thousands of Iraqi troops were locked in an armed stand-off with Kurdish forces in the disputed oil-rich province of Kirkuk as Washington scrambled to avert fighting between its allies in the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria group (ISIS).

Iraqi forces seized the Kirkuk governor's office, key military sites and an oil field on Monday as they swept across the disputed province following soaring tensions with Kurds over an independence referendum.

The Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service, police forces and the army's ninth brigade regained control of a vast territory in Kirkuk including the oil well, Baba Gurgur, without clashing with the Peshmerga forces located in Kirkuk.

Tensions in the area began rising several weeks ago, when the country's Kurds voted for independence from Baghdad. Iran and Turkey, both with their own restive Kurdish minorities, led regional opposition to the referendum and on Monday, Turkey's foreign ministry issued a statement stressing the need for Iraqi unity.

The Kurdistan Region Security Council later released a statement that said Peshmerga fighters had destroyed at least five armoured vehicles belonging to the state-sanctioned Shia militias following the attack, resulting in what an Iraqi-Kurdish commander referred to as "lots of casualties".

Iraq has demanded that Kurdistan allow its forces to return to positions it held before the war against Islamic State militants.

Although Iraqi officials portrayed the Kurds as retreating without a fight, Kurdish officials said Peshmerga had clashed with the "Popular Mobilisation" - Shi'ite Muslim forces trained and armed by Iran that operate alongside regular Iraqi troops.

Moreover, the USA senator underscored that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the Kurdish Regional Government should begin talks about Kurdish independence from Iraq at an appropriate time.

In addition to harboring Kurdish troops, the K-1 military base before the advance was also home to a contingent of USA -led coalition forces.

The conflict in Iraq helped spur a jump in world oil prices on Monday.

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.

State-run Al-Iraqiya TV had earlier reported that federal forces rolled into parts of the countryside outside Kirkuk without facing resistance.

Thousands of people fled the city ahead of the Iraqi advance.

The government said its forces, including the elite US-trained Counter Terrorism Service, had moved nearly unopposed into the industrial zone just south of Kirkuk and the oil, gas, facilities located south and west of the city. Washington, allied with the Kurds for decades, pleaded vainly for them to halt a vote that could break up Iraq. Kamran Kardaghi, a Kurdish commentator and former chief of staff to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who died last week says that "the Kurdish leadership never expected that there would be such consequences to the referendum".

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. While Barzani's KDP strongly supported the independence referendum, some PUK figures were more circumspect. For years, Turkey has notably described a unilateral move by the Kurds to control Kirkuk as a red line.

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 U.S. occupation that followed, Washington leaned on its Kurdish allies to keep their ambitions in check to avoid triggering another war amid an insurgency by Sunni Arabs.

Baghdad and the Kurds have long-running disputes over oil exports, extraction and sharing oil revenues.

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