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Iraq Ops Launched to Retake Kirkuk     10/16 06:29

   KIRKUK, Iraq (AP) -- Iraqi Kurdish officials said early Monday that federal 
forces and state-backed militias have launched a "major, multi-pronged" attack 
aimed at retaking Kirkuk, as fighting erupted just outside the disputed 
northern city.

   Kurdish forces appeared to be pulling back, abandoning fortified positions 
around the airport as large numbers of civilians fled the northern city ahead 
of a feared assault. The multi-ethnic city, home to some 1 million Arabs, 
Kurds, Turkmen and Christians, is claimed by autonomous Kurdish authorities as 
well as the central government in Baghdad.

   The conflict pits two close U.S. allies against each other, potentially 
undermining the unfinished war against the Islamic State group.

   The Kurdistan Region Security Council said in a statement that the Kurdish 
forces, known as the peshmerga, destroyed at least five U.S.-supplied Humvees 
being used by Iraq's state-sanctioned militias following the "unprovoked 
attack" south of the city.

   Brig. Gen. Bahzad Ahmed, a spokesman for Kurdish forces, said federal forces 
have seized an oil and gas company and other industrial areas south of Kirkuk 
in fighting with Kurdish forces that caused "lots of casualties," without 
providing a specific figure.

   He said Iraqi forces have "burnt lots of houses and killed many people" in 
Toz Khormato and Daquq, south of the disputed city. His claims could not be 
independently verified.

   Iraq's Interior Ministry said in a brief statement that federal forces have 
taken control of a power plant, a police station and industrial areas near 
Kirkuk. It provided no further details on the fighting or casualties in what it 
referred to as Operation Impose Security on Kirkuk.

   Tensions have soared since the Kurds held a non-binding referendum last 
month in which they voted for independence from Iraq. The central government, 
along with neighboring Turkey and Iran, rejected the vote.

   The United States has supplied and trained Iraqi federal forces and the 
peshmerga, both of which are fighting the Islamic State group. The U.S. also 
opposed the referendum, and has urged both sides to remain focused on defeating 
the extremists.

   U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, tweeted 
that it was "closely monitoring sit. near Kirkuk; urge all sides to avoid 
escalatory actions. Finish the fight vs. #ISIS, biggest threat to all." ISIS is 
another acronym for the Islamic State group.

   The central government and the autonomous Kurdish region in the north have 
long been divided over oil revenues and the fate of disputed territories like 
Kirkuk that are controlled by Kurdish forces but are outside their self-ruled 
region.

   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.

   Iraq has since rebuilt its armed forces with considerable U.S. aid, and they 
are battle-hardened and flush with victory after driving IS from most of the 
territory it once held. 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.

   Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had vowed that the militias, known as the 
Popular Mobilization Forces, would remain outside the city, but an Associated 
Press reporter saw them taking up posts that had been abandoned by Kurdish 
forces in western Kirkuk.

   The Kurdish security council said the assault launched late Sunday was aimed 
at entering the city and retaking the K-1 military base and nearby oil fields.

   State-run Al-Iraqiya TV had earlier reported that federal forces rolled into 
parts of the countryside outside Kirkuk without facing resistance. However, 
some residents of the city and an Iraqi militia commander reported shelling.

   Al-Iraqiya carried a statement from al-Abadi's office saying he had ordered 
federal forces to "impose security in the city in cooperation with the 
inhabitants and the peshmerga," indicating he was willing to share 
administration.

   A commander of the local Kurdish police force said his forces remained in 
control of the province's disputed oil wells. "There's been no agreement to 
hand over the wells until now. As for the future, I don't know," said Bahja 
Ahmad Amin.

   Ercuman Turkman, a PMF commander, said shortly before forces began moving in 
that he expected orders to move on Kirkuk's oil wells, its airport and the 
nearby K-1 military base, but not the city. Haytham Hashem, another PMF 
commander, reported shelling on his position in Toz Khormato, 10 kilometers (6 
miles) from the edge of Kirkuk city.

   Baghdad has been turning the screws on the Kurdish region since the 
September referendum, pushing Kurd leaders to disavow the vote and accept 
shared administration over Kirkuk.

   Iraq's government barred international flights to and from the region and 
asked neighboring Turkey and Iran to close their borders. Iran closed its three 
official crossings with the Kurdish region Sunday, Kurdish media reported. It 
also froze currency transfers to four banks operating in the Kurdish region.

   Al-Abadi has demanded shared administration over Kirkuk. His Cabinet said 
Sunday that fighters from Turkey's Kurdish insurgency, the PKK, were beginning 
to appear in Kirkuk, and declared that would be tantamount to an act of war.


(KA)

 
 
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