KIRKUK, Iraq — The Latest on Iraq, where federal forces have moved into the disputed northern city of Kirkuk as Kurdish forces have pulled out (all times local):
The Pentagon is declining to blame the Iraqi government for the violence in Kirkuk, and instead is urging the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish authorities to negotiate their differences.
A Pentagon spokesman, Col. Rob Manning, says the confrontation underway in the Iraqi city is a “distractor” to the U.S. goal of destroying the Islamic State group, and that Iraqi security forces and Kurdish peshmerga troops should not be “going at each other.”
Iraqi government forces have moved into the disputed city of Kirkuk and seized oil fields and other infrastructure on Monday, following last month’s Kurdish independence vote.
Asked about U.S. Sen. John McCain’s statement that the Iraqi government faces severe consequences for what he called its misuse of U.S. military equipment to attack Kurdish forces, Manning said he could not comment beyond saying Washington wants both sides to engage in dialogue. He said U.S. commanders in Iraq are trying to help mediate.
Turkey says it supports the operation conducted by the Iraq government forces which moved in to the disputed city of Kirkuk and seized oil fields and other infrastructure following last month’s Kurdish independence vote.
Speaking to reporters at the end of a Cabinet meeting Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag however, described the operation as “too late” in coming.
“There is an attack against Iraq’s territorial integrity, against its sovereignty rights, its political unity and constitution,” Bozdag said. “We think this step designed to expel this attack is a very important one.”
Earlier, Bozdag announced Turkey was closing its airspace to flights to and from the Iraqi Kurdish region.
Turkey has announced that it is closing its airspace to flights to and from Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag told reporters following a weekly Cabinet meeting Monday that the government has also decided to start procedures to hand over the control of a border gate into the Kurdish region to the Iraqi central government in Baghdad.
The announcement came amid escalating tensions between Baghdad and the Kurdish region following last month’s non-binding referendum for independence.
On Monday, Iraqi federal forces moved in to the disputed city of Kirkuk and seized oil fields and other infrastructure amid soaring tensions, forcing Kurdish forces to withdraw.
Turkey, which has a large Kurdish population and is fighting a Kurdish insurgency on its territory, strongly opposes Kurdish moves toward independence.
Turkey last month suspended flights to Iraqi Kurdish cities.
The U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State group says it believes the exchange of fire between Iraqi and Kurdish forces in and around Kirkuk was a “misunderstanding.”
A coalition statement says it is monitoring federal and Kurdish military vehicles and believes they are “coordinated movements, not attacks.”
It said it was aware of reports of a “limited exchange of fire during predawn hours of darkness,” but “we believe the engagement this morning was a misunderstanding and not deliberate as two elements attempted to link up under limited visibility conditions.”
The U.S. has armed, trained and provided vital air support to both federal and Kurdish forces as part of the war against IS. It has urged both sides to remain focused on the extremists.
Baghdad and the Kurdish region have long been at odds over the fate of Kirkuk, a dispute that has grown more bitter since the Kurds voted for independence last month in a non-binding referendum.
Maj. Gen. Robert White, commander of coalition ground forces, says: “We continue to advocate dialogue between Iraqi and Kurdish authorities. All parties must remain focused on the defeat of our common enemy,” the Islamic State group.
A spokesman for Iraq’s state-sanctioned militias says they have “achieved all our goals” in retaking areas from Kurdish forces in and around the disputed northern city of Kirkuk.
Ahmed al-Assadi says federal forces came under fire from “some rebels” after launching the operation early Monday and returned fire.
He says federal forces have been deployed in the area of the K-1 military base, the Kirkuk airport and a number of oil fields and installations. But he says the state-backed militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, have not entered the city center.
Associated Press reporters earlier saw militiamen at posts in western Kirkuk.
Kurdish forces seized control of Kirkuk in the summer of 2014, when Islamic State militants swept across northern Iraq and the country’s armed forces crumbled. The Kurds claim Kirkuk, even though it is outside their autonomous region.
The central government has long demanded the Kurds withdraw, and appears to have decided to act in the wake of last month’s Kurdish vote for independence, which was rejected as unconstitutional by Baghdad.
Iraq’s military says it has seized two major oil fields outside the disputed city of Kirkuk from Kurdish forces.
The military said in a statement Monday that federal forces are now in control of the North Oil Company and Baba Gurgur fields.
Iraqi forces advanced on Kirkuk overnight Monday, clashing with Kurdish forces on the outskirts. The city is outside the Kurdish autonomous region but claimed by the Kurds and the central government.
The Kurds and the central government have long been divided over the sharing of revenues from the oil fields outside Kirkuk.
State-sanctioned Iraqi militias have taken up positions inside the disputed northern city of Kirkuk after federal forces clashed with Kurdish forces outside the city.
The mostly Shiite Arab militias, known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, are viewed with deep suspicion by the city’s Kurdish community. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had previously vowed they would remain outside the city.
An Associated Press reporter on Monday saw the militiamen at posts in Turkmen areas on the western side of the city that had been abandoned by Kurdish forces.
Kurdish forcers were falling back from their positions around Kirkuk as federal forces advanced on the city. Kurdish commanders say they have sustained casualties in the clashes, without providing specific figures.
Sporadic gunfire can be heard inside Kirkuk. Police at a checkpoint to the north said Kurdish families are leaving to Irbil, in the nearby autonomous Kurdish region, fearing attacks by the PMF.
The European Union is launching a civilian mission in Iraq to help the conflict-ravaged country revamp its security sector to better tackle terrorism, corruption and political instability.
EU foreign ministers said in a statement on Monday that the mission will have a budget of 14 million euros ($16.5 million) and is set to deploy to Baghdad at the end of the year for 12 months.
The team, expected to number up to 35 personnel, will advise and assist the Iraqi authorities in carrying out their national security strategy.
The EU announcement came as Iraqi forces entered territory held by Kurds to end a political dispute over areas seized by Kurdish militias three years ago to defend the oil city of Kirkuk against the Islamic State group.
Iraqi Kurdish forces have abandoned their positions outside Kirkuk’s airport and civilians are fleeing in large numbers as federal forces close in on the disputed city following an overnight attack from the south.
An Associated Press reporter saw the positions abandoned and the civilians fleeing on Monday. Federal forces had earlier seized an industrial area and a power plant to the south of the city.
The fighting comes amid soaring tensions after the Kurds voted for independence last month in a non-binding referendum rejected as unconstitutional by Baghdad.
Both the Kurdish forces and the federal forces have been armed and trained by the United States, and both are allies against the Islamic State group.
Iraq’s military command is ordering Kirkuk’s local police and security forces to report to their posts in the city as usual after federal forces seized nearby areas in clashes with Kurdish fighters.
The statement from the armed forces command Monday says the federal government wants local police to stay in the city to maintain order. The military says it wants to protect the city with “the people of Kirkuk.”
Federal forces have not yet entered the city. Residents have reported sporadic rocket and mortar fire.
Kurdish forces known as peshmerga took control of Kirkuk in the summer of 2014, when the Islamic State group swept across northern Iraq and the country’s armed forces crumbled.
Iraq has since demanded that the city, which is outside the Kurds’ autonomous region, be handed back to federal control. Tensions have escalated since the Kurds voted for independence in a non-binding referendum last month.
Iraq’s Kurds have vowed to fight back against any attempt by federal forces to seize the airport in the disputed city of Kirkuk, after clashes erupted overnight.
Maj. Gen. Ayoub Yusuf Said told The Associated Press: “We are not withdrawing from here, we are fortifying our positions at the airport and we intend to fight here.”
He says his forces have been battling since early Monday and have suffered casualties, without providing a specific figure.
The Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, were digging in at the edge of the international airport after withdrawing from their positions outside the city following an attack by Iraqi troops.
Hundreds of armed Kurdish residents were taking up positions inside the city anticipating an attack.
Tensions between Iraq’s Kurds and the central government have soared since the Kurds voted for independence last month in a non-binding referendum rejected by Baghdad and much of the international community.
Iraq’s Interior Ministry says federal forces have captured a power plant and a police station south of Kirkuk after what Kurdish officials described as a major assault aimed at driving Kurdish forces from the disputed city.
Monday’s brief statement from the Interior Ministry, on “Operation Impose Security on Kirkuk,” provided no details on the fighting or casualties, saying only that federal forces had taken control of industrial areas near the city.
Kurdish officials say federal forces launched a major assault south of the city that caused “lots of casualties,” without providing exact figures. It was not immediately possible to independently confirm their claims.
Tensions around Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic city claimed by the Kurdish autonomous region and the central government, have soared since the Kurds voted for independence last month in a referendum condemned as unconstitutional by Baghdad.
Both the federal forces and the Kurdish forces are close U.S. allies that have been armed and trained as part of the ongoing fight against the Islamic State group.
The U.S.-led coalition is urging Iraqi and Kurdish forces to “avoid escalatory actions” after federal forces launched an assault south of the disputed northern city of Kirkuk, sparking clashes with the Kurds.
U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesman, tweeted that the coalition is “closely monitoring sit. near Kirkuk; urge all sides to avoid escalatory actions. Finish the fight vs. #ISIS, biggest threat to all.”
The U.S.-led coalition has armed and trained federal and Kurdish forces in the battle against the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, which is still ongoing despite the retaking of the northern city of Mosul earlier this year.
Iraqi forces launched a major operation south of Kirkuk late Sunday and have captured industrial areas near the city. Kurdish officials say their forces have sustained casualties.
Tensions have been soaring since the Kurds voted for independence last month in a non-binding referendum rejected by the central government as well as the United States.
An Iraqi Kurdish commander says 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.”
Brig. Gen. Bahzad Ahmed, a spokesman for Kurdish forces, said Monday the Iraqi troops have “burnt lots of houses and killed many people” in Toz Khormato and Daquq, south of the disputed city. He said Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, have “destroyed one or two of their tanks.”
His claims could not be independently verified.
Kurdish officials say federal forces launched an assault south of Kirkuk late Sunday, aiming to capture a military base and surrounding oil wells.
The multi-ethnic city has been at the heart of a long-running dispute between the Kurds and the federal government that escalated following last month’s non-binding Kurdish vote for independence.
The U.S. has armed and trained Iraqi and Kurdish forces, both of which are at war with the Islamic State group.
Iraqi Kurdish officials say federal forces and state-backed militias have launched a “major, multi-pronged” attack aimed at retaking the disputed northern city of Kirkuk.
The Kurdistan Region Security Council says in a statement Monday that Kurdish forces known as peshmerga have destroyed at least five U.S.-supplied Humvees being used by the state-sanctioned militias following the “unprovoked attack” south of the city.
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.
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