Published: Tue, October 17, 2017
World Media | By Shelia Harmon

Iraqi forces 'launch major Kirkuk operation'

Iraqi forces 'launch major Kirkuk operation'

Iraq has taken control of key areas of the dispute city of Kirkuk, seizing the global airport, a key oil field and a military base in what is an oil-rich area bordering the Kurdistan Region.

The JOC said its forces had retaken the K1 military base northwest of Kirkuk, the military airport east of the city and the North Oil Company and Baba Gargar oil fields, two of six in the disputed region.

Oil and natural gas production from the Kirkuk region is proceeding normally despite the ongoing Iraqi military operation to seize the region form Kurdish forces, another Iraqi Oil Ministry official told Reuters in Baghdad.

Tensions in the area began rising several weeks ago, when the country's Kurds voted for independence from Baghdad.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi directed the Armed Forces to protect all citizens in Kirkuk, following news that a vast territory in Kirkuk Monday will be restored, an official statement by Abadi said.

Iraq's Joint Operations Command (JOC), which groups all pro-government forces, did not specify whether there had been significant clashes in the operation, but the speed of the advance suggested Kurdish fighters were so far withdrawing without resistance. On one side is the Iraqi army and allied Iranian-backed Shiite militia, known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), and on the other side the Kurdish peshmerga.

Polling during the referendum was held not only in the three provinces of the autonomous Kurdish region but also in adjacent Kurdish-held areas, including Kirkuk, that are claimed by both Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan. The Associated Press reported that Kurdish fighters had abandoned their positions outside Kirkuk's airport while civilians were fleeing the city, where sporadic gunfire could be heard.

The military action in Kirkuk helped spur a jump in world oil prices on Monday.

The KDP-affiliated Kurdistan Region Security Council said it destroyed five USA -supplied Humvees used in the advance by Iraq's popular mobilization units, an umbrella group containing Iranian-backed militias that fight as part of Iraq's security forces. Abadi's office said the militias would remain on the outskirts of Kirkuk rather than enter the city.

Thousands of revelers waving the Iraqi Turkmen and Iraqi national flags were celebrating the transfer of power in downtown Kirkuk by nightfall, but thousands more were fleeing the city with their belongings to the neighboring Kurdish region, fearful of national or militia rule.

The Kurdish secession bid was strongly opposed by neighbours Iran and Turkey.

Before 2014, the Iraqi government extracted and exported oil from Kirkuk's fields.

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.

Some elements of Kurdistan's Patriotic Union Party, or PUK, whose forces dominate in the area, agreed to withdraw in coordination with Baghdad.

Part of the PUK, much divided since its leader Jalal Talabani suffered a stroke and sank into a coma, opposed the independence referendum as a manoeuvre by Mr Barzani to present himself as the great Kurdish nationalist leader.

The status of Kirkuk and fate of the Kurds were left unsettled 14 years ago when a USA -led invasion toppled Saddam.

"We salute and appreciate the courageous position of the peshmerga fighters who refused to fight their brothers in the Iraqi forces", Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq Shiite militia, backed by Iran, said on Twitter.

During the years of United States 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. It is no accident, analysts say, that President Masoud Barzani, whose term expired in 2015, slated the referendum two months before elections.

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

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