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Iraqi forces seize 'vast areas' of Kirkuk province as Kurds withdraw

Peshmerga pull out from some areas of provincial capital as Iraqi forces take oil fields, airport and military base
Local residents gather on the road as they welcome Iraqi security forces members, who continue to advance in military vehicles in Kirkuk (Reuters)

Iraqi forces said on Monday they had seized the oil fields and the main military base in Kirkuk province from Kurdish fighters following a mounting standoff over the Kurdish independence referendum.

Iraq's Joint Operations Command, which groups all pro-government forces, said "anti-terrorist units" had taken over the K1 military base northwest of the disputed city of Kirkuk. They also announced the capture of the Kirkuk air base.

Peshmerga forces loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) reportedly withdrew from positions around the city as Iraqi forces advanced. Kurds in Kirkuk reportedly jeered and condemned Peshmerga for refusing to stay and fight.

Thousands of civilians began fleeing the city as tensions continued to mount.

Two Iraqi commanders told Reuters they had no orders to enter the city but were just aiming to "secure the surroundings". However, photos released by local news outlets showed tanks entering Kirkuk's outskirts, while journalists reported clashes.

Earlier on Monday, the forces said they had taken control of "vast areas" in the region of Kirkuk, including oil fields west of the city and roads and infrastructure near Kirkuk while Iraq's Joint Operations Command said it was making progress in its operation to "restore security" in Kirkuk.

Iraq's 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," according to state TV.

The elite, US-trained "counter-terrorism service, the 9th armoured division and federal police have taken control of vast areas of Kirkuk without confrontations," it said, adding that oil fields and Kurdish military positions were captured.

But a Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) security official denied that Iraqi forces were able to get closer to the city or take territory from the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.

General Bahzad Ahmed, a spokesman for Kurdish forces, said on Monday the Iraqi troops had "burnt lots of houses and killed many people" in Tuz Khurmatu and Daquq, south of the disputed city. 

His claims could not be independently verified.

The US defence department urged Iraqi and Kurdish forces "to avoid additional escalatory actions," saying in a statement it opposed destabilising actions that detract from the battle against Islamic State (IS) group militants. The US provided weapons to both the Iraqi army and the Peshmerga to fight IS.

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 Peshmerga forces and Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) militia forces, the KRG official said.

The PMU are a mainly Shia Iraqi force trained and armed by Iran, and now part of the Iraqi national armed forces, which is providing support to the Iraqi operation in Kirkuk, according to state TV.

The Iraqi government and the KRG have been at loggerheads since a 25 September Kurdish independence referendum, rejected as illegal by Baghdad.

Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic city with a large Kurdish community, shaped up 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.

"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 about 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 on Sunday by the Iraqi government in Baghdad and the Kurdish leadership in the town of Dokan.

It also coincided with a visit by Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani to the Kurdistan region. He is the commander of foreign operations for Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards who provide training and guns to Popular Mobilisation.

The KRG president, Massoud 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, lies just outside KRG territory, but Peshmerga forces were stationed there in 2014 when Iraqi security forces retreated in the face of an IS onslaught.

The Peshmerga deployment prevented Kirkuk's oil fields from falling into militant hands.

The Baghdad central government has taken a series of steps to isolate the autonomous Kurdish region since its vote for independence, including banning international flights.

Baghdad's tough line, ruling out talks sought by the Kurds unless they renounce the breakaway move, is backed by neighbours Turkey and Iran - both with their own sizeable Kurdish minorities, and in Turkey's case, a long-running Kurdish insurgency.

The US has taken the side of the Iraqi government in refusing to recognise the validity of the referendum.

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