Iraqi federal forces restore Kirkuk Air Base from Peshmerga

Iraqi federal forces and state-backed militias began a pre-dawn advance to retake military bases and oil fields around the city of Kirkuk, which Kurdish forces, or peshmerga, had controlled for more than three years.

The coalition said it was aware of reports of clashes but they appeared to be the result of a "misunderstanding and not deliberate".

The Kurds assumed control of Kirkuk, in the heart of a major oil-producing region, in the summer of 2014, when IS militants swept across northern Iraq and the country's armed forces crumbled.

Kirkuk, one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse cities in Iraq, is located just outside the autonomous Kurdish zone.

The overnight advance was the most decisive step Baghdad has taken yet to crush the independence bid of the Kurds, who have governed an autonomous part of Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and voted on September 25 to secede. The Iraqi government, the United States, Turkey and Iran all opposed the vote.

The oil fields are particularly contested.

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. The Kurds also seized oil fields formerly run by Baghdad that pump hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil per day.

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.

Iraqi government forces captured the major Kurdish-held oil city of Kirkuk on Monday, responding to a Kurdish referendum on independence with a bold lightning strike that transforms the balance of power in the country.

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Iraqi forces also said they took key road junctions, police stations and military positions. To Baghdad, it looked like a provocation that underscored what it sees as unchecked Kurdish expansionism. But the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, opposed a deal. "IS remains the true enemy of Iraq, and we urge all parties to remain focused on finishing the liberation of their country from this menace". A convoy of armoured vehicles from Baghdad's highly-trained and experienced Counter-Terrorism Force, which led the attack in the battle for Mosul, drove unopposed to the quarter of Kirkuk occupied by the governor's office and other administration buildings. One wore the uniform of a lieutenant colonel. It is no accident, analysts say, that President Masoud Barzani, whose term expired in 2015, slated the referendum two months before elections.

The flare-up presents an awkward dilemma for the United States. Fighting alongside the armed forces are tens of thousands of state-sanctioned militiamen, mainly Shiite Arab fighters backed by Iran, whom the Kurds view as an instrument of demographic change.

"This attack, waged by the Iraqi government, Hashd al-Shaabi and forces associated with the Headquarters of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards' Quds force, is in retaliation against the people of Kurdistan who have asked for freedom", the Peshmerga statement said, as reported by the Kurdish news outlet Rudaw.

"It's comical, really", said a Kurdish official with the KDP, talking about US silence given the presence of Iran-supported militias in the advance.

"We call on all parties to immediately cease military action and restore calm while we continue to work with officials from the central and regional governments to reduce tensions and avoid and futher clashes", the U.S. embassy said. "In the Middle East, silence is taken as a sign of weakness".

A statement by the US-led global military task force in Iraq described the clashes outside Kirkuk as a "misunderstanding".

It called for all parties to "immediately cease military action and restore calm".

The constitution mandated that federal forces should secure disputed territories during the transition period until a referendum could be held on the status of Kirkuk.

  • Adam Floyd