Iraqi forces have reportedly advanced on Kirkuk’s oilfields and an airbase after the prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, ordered his army to “impose security” on the Kurdish city after a recent vote for independence.
Kurdish and Iraqi officials both reported that forces began moving at midnight on Sunday, with state TV reporting that “vast areas” of the region had been seized, a claim disputed by the Kurds.
Military sources on both sides reported exchanges of Katyusha rocket fire to the south of the provincial capital. Multiple Kurdish peshmerga fighters were injured in the clashes, a local security source told Agence France-Presse.
The governor of Kirkuk, Najmaldin Karim, urged the public to come out on to the streets and said he was confident Peshmerga forces would protect the city.
The elite, US-trained “Counter Terrorism Service, the 9th armored division, and Federal Police have taken control of vast areas of Kirkuk without confrontations,” it said, and oil fields and Kurdish military positions were captured.
But a KRG security official denied that Iraqi forces were able to get closer to the city or take territory from the Kurdish peshmerga fighters.
The official told the oil fields and the air base west of Kirkuk were still under Kurdish control.
The US Department of Defense urged Iraqi and Kurdish forces “to avoid additional escalatory actions” that would detract from the battle against Islamic State. The US provided weapons to both the Iraqi army and the peshmerga to fight Isis.
The conflict in Iraq helped spur a jump in world oil prices on Monday.
The most serious clash happened south of Kirkuk, an exchange of artillery fire between the peshmerga and Popular Mobilisation, a mainly Shi’ite Iraqi paramilitary force trained and armed by Iran, the KRG official said.
The KRG official said peshmerga had pushed back two assaults by the Iraqi forces south of the city and destroyed several Humvees used by Popular Mobilisation.
Popular Mobilisation is providing support to the Iraqi operation in Kirkuk.
The Iraqi government and the KRG have been at loggerheads since a September 25 Kurdish independence referendum, rejected as illegal by Baghdad.
Kirkuk, a multiethnic city with a large Kurdish community, shaped as a flashpoint because it is claimed by both sides.
Residents of Kirkuk said there was no sign the Iraqi forces were getting close to the city itself, which is under the control of the Kurdish Asayish police.
Tension was running high at the news of the Iraqi operation and young Kurds carrying automatic guns were seen in the streets until the early hours of Monday.
There were clashes between Kurdish and Shi’ite Turkmen groups in another city, Tuz Khormatu, about 50 miles south of Kirkuk, but no casualties were reported.
“Iraqi forces and Popular Mobilisation are now advancing from Taza, south of Kirkuk, in a major operation,” the KRG Security Council said in a statement around midnight.
“Their intention is to enter the city and take over the K1 air base and oil fields,” all located west of the city, it said
The Iraqi forces’ operation in the region of Kirkuk followed meetings held Sunday by the Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdish leadership in the town of Dokan.
It also coincided with a visit to the Kurdistan region by Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. He is the commander of foreign operations for Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, which provides training and guns to Popular Mobilisation.
KRG President Masoud Barzani and top Kurdish officials who met in Dokan rejected the Iraqi government’s demand that it cancel the outcome of the independence referendum as a precondition for talks to resolve the dispute.
Kirkuk, a city of more than a million people with a large Kurdish community, lies just outside KRG territory, but peshmerga forces were stationed there in 2014 when Iraqi security forces collapsed in the face of an Islamic State onslaught.
The peshmerga deployment prevented Kirkuk’s oil fields from falling into jihadist hands.
The US has taken the side of the Iraqi government in refusing to recognize the validity of the referendum.