Kurdish forces were withdrawing from Kirkuk yesterday as Iraqi federal forces moved in to the disputed city and seized oil fields and other infrastructure amid soaring tensions over last month’s vote for independence.
Kurdish officials accused the Iraqi army of carrying out a “major, multi-prong attack” and reported heavy clashes on the city’s outskirts.
But a spokesman for Iraq’s state-backed militias said they encountered little resistance.
By midday, federal forces had moved into several major oil fields north of the city, as well as its airport and an important military base, according to Iraqi commanders. Kurdish party headquarters inside Kirkuk had been abandoned.
The US, which has armed, trained and provided vital air support to both sides in their shared struggle against the Islamic State group, described the events as “coordinated movements, not attacks”, while bemoaning the dispute as a distraction in the fight against a common enemy. It said the limited exchange of fire was a “misunderstanding”.
After initial reports of clashes in and around the city, it appeared by the afternoon as though the vastly outnumbered Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, were pulling out with hardly a fight.
Local police stayed in place in Kirkuk as Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi called on civil servants to remain at their posts to serve the city.
“We have only acted to fulfil our constitutional duty and extend the federal authority and impose security and protect the national wealth in this city,” he said.
Still, thousands of civilians could be seen leaving with their belongings heading north along the country roads that lead to Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.
Kirkuk, home to some one million Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and Christians, has been at the heart of a long-running dispute between the autonomous Kurdish region and the central government in Baghdad. Both are close allies of the US.
The Kurdistan Region Security Council said that the peshmerga destroyed at least five US-supplied Humvees being used by Iraq’s state-sanctioned militias following the “unprovoked attack” south of the city.
Brigadier General Bahzad Ahmed, a spokesman for Kurdish forces, said federal forces seized an oil and gas company and other industrial areas south of Kirkuk in fighting with Kurdish forces that caused “lots of casualties”.
He said Iraqi forces had “burnt lots of houses and killed many people” south of the disputed city. His claims could not be independently verified.
A spokesman for Iraq’s state-sanctioned militias said they had “achieved all our goals” in retaking areas from Kurdish forces in and around the northern city. Ahmed al-Assadi said federal forces came under fire from “some rebels” after launching the operation early yesterday and returned fire. He did not say whether they suffered any casualties.
He said federal forces have been deployed in the area of the K-1 military base, the Kirkuk airport and a number of oil fields and installations.
Al-Assadi said the state-backed militias, mainly Shiite Arab fighters known as the Popular Mobilisation Forces, had not entered the city centre, but journalists saw Turkmen PMF militiamen taking up posts in the western part of the city.
Tensions have soared since the Kurds held a non-binding referendum last month in which they voted for independence from Iraq. The central government, along with neighbouring Turkey and Iran, as well as the United States, rejected the vote.
The central government and the autonomous Kurdish region have long been divided over the sharing of oil revenues and the fate of disputed territories.