BAGHDAD • Iraqi government forces captured the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk yesterday, responding to a Kurdish vote on independence with a bold lightning strike that transforms the balance of power in the country.
A convoy of armoured vehicles from Iraq's counter-terrorism force seized the provincial government headquarters in Kirkuk in the afternoon, residents said, less than a day after the operation began. A dozen armoured vehicles arrived at the building and took up positions alongside local police, they said.
Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi ordered that the Iraqi flag be hoisted over Kirkuk and other disputed areas claimed by both the central government and the Kurds, who defied Baghdad to hold a vote for independence on Sept 25.
Baghdad described the advance as largely unopposed, and urged Kurdish security forces known as Peshmerga to cooperate in keeping the peace.
But the US-led international task force in Iraq said it was aware of "a limited exchange of fire during pre-dawn hours", which it believed was "a misunderstanding... as two elements attempted to link up under limited visibility conditions".
Kurdish officials said the Peshmerga had clashed with the Popular Mobilisation Forces - Shi'ite Muslim militias trained and armed by Iran that operate alongside regular Iraqi troops - in an exchange of artillery fire. A Kurdish official said the Peshmerga had pushed back two assaults and destroyed several Popular Mobilisation Forces vehicles.
A Kurdish health official said at least 10 Kurdish fighters were killed and 27 hurt during overnight fighting, with dozens missing. State television said Iraqi forces also entered Tuz Khurmato, a town with clashes between Kurds and mainly Shi'ite Muslims of Turkmen ethnicity.
Thousands of residents fled Kurdish districts of Kirkuk in an exodus towards Erbil and Sulaimaniyah, the two main cities of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan. The Peshmerga said Baghdad would be made to pay "a heavy price" for triggering "war on the Kurdistan people". A Kurdish commander said his forces had mounted a counterattack.
But divisions within the Kurdish command broke into the open, with officials from an opposition party saying its fighters had agreed to make way for the advancing Iraqi forces. Adding to the tensions, Turkey said it was ready to help oust Kurdish fighters from Kirkuk.
Washington called for calm on all sides. "ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) remains the true enemy of Iraq, and we urge all parties to remain focused on finishing the liberation of their country from this menace," the United States Embassy said in a statement.
The military action helped spur a jump in world oil prices after oilfields near Kirkuk halted production, but Baghdad said it would quickly restart it.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES