Iraqi Forces Enter Disputed Kirkuk Region

Iraqi government denies operation claims to Kirkuk

No resistance was reported as the operation was launched, and Iraqi troops said they had been instructed to avoid violence.

As well as highlighting the deep rifts in Iraq, the confrontation has also exposed splits among the Kurds themselves.

Kirkuk, one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse cities in Iraq, is located just outside the autonomous Kurdish zone. In response, the Iraqi central government shut down Kurdistan's global airport and has threatened to close the region's borders with Iran and Turkey, which have warned of potential military action.

The United States has taken the side of the Iraqi government in refusing to recognize the validity of the referendum. For Baghdad, it added urgency to a need to reassert its claims to the province, which has around 10 percent of the country's oil reserves.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi gave orders to the security forces "to impose security in Kirkuk in cooperation with the population of the city and the Peshmerga", the TV said.

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. It pitted members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan against Turkmen loyal to Shiite political groups ruling Iraq. But the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, opposed a deal.

It also coincided with a visit by Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani to the Kurdistan region.

A convoy of armoured vehicles from Iraq's elite US-trained Counter Terrorism Force seized Kirkuk's provincial government headquarters less than a day after the operation began, a Reuters reporter in Kirkuk said. A picture shared on social media appeared to show Iraqi forces sitting in the governor's office. One wore the uniform of a lieutenant colonel.

The flare-up presents an awkward dilemma for the United States.

A Kurdish customs official, Shakhwan Abu Bakr, earlier said that the border had been closed to all people and goods at the three crossings into Iran.

It called for all parties to "immediately cease military action and restore calm". Under the orders, the army should "secure bases [and] federal installations in Kirkuk province". That was slated to take place in 2007 after a "normalization" process to reverse demographic changes made by former dictator Saddam Hussein, who attempted to assert influence by moving in Arab residents.

Inside the Kurdish region, elections are slated to be held next month and the two major parties will be looking to leverage the crisis to win votes.

Mr Abadi said in a statement on Monday that the operation in Kirkuk was necessary to "protect the unity of the country, which was in danger of partition" because of the referendum.

As Kurdish authorities warned they were about to come under attack last week, Abadi tried to defuse tension, taking to Twitter to assure that Iraqi forces "cannot and will not attack our citizens". The Iraqi parliament has voted to dismiss Kareem over the independence vote, according to state-run Iraqiya news.

"Qassem Solaimani...is always among the Haashd al-Shaabi forces", the Kurdish spokesperson said.

Baghdad has accused fighters who are not Iraqi Kurds - including Turkey's outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party - of being inside Kirkuk, as part of the Kurdish standoff with Iraq over the status of the region. They were also deploying in the nearby Baba Gurgur field and the North Oil refinery.

"Despite the Kurdistan Regional Government's unfortunate decision to pursue a unilateral referendum, dialogue remains the best option to diffuse ongoing tensions and long-standing issues", he noted.

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.

But militia commanders took a more combative tone.

The central government controlled Kirkuk until 2014, when the Iraqi army crumbled as the "Islamic State" (IS) swept through large parts of Iraq and Syria.

The presidents of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan held talks Sunday to defuse an escalating crisis, after a deadline for Kurdish forces to withdraw from disputed positions was extended by 24 hours. It said popular mobilization units took positions "outside Kirkuk". But as that fight comes to an end, the fear is that the two US-backed forces may go to war. "They're fighting to control the oil, and the victims are us, the residents of Kirkuk", he said.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters ride in a vehicule in the Southwest of Kirkuk, Iraq October 13, 2017.

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