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Iraqi troops move to retake Kirkuk from Kurdish control

Iraqi troops move to retake Kirkuk from Kurdish control

The reports say that forces began moving at midnight on Sunday towards oil fields and an important air base held by Kurdish forces near the city.

After Islamic State swept across a third of Iraq in 2014 and were subsequently driven out, the Kurds found themselves in their strongest position on the ground for generations.

Iraqi forces moved into Kirkuk, Iraq, in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria early this morning, Pentagon Director of Press Operations Army Col. Rob Manning told reporters today.

Kurdish claims are based off the 1957 Iraqi census, the last held in the province, which showed Kurds to be a majority in Kirkuk province, although the Turkmen and Arabs could claim a majority in Kirkuk city proper.

"We're leaving because we're scared there will be clashes" in the ethnically mixed city of 850,000 people, said 51-year-old Chounem Qader.

The International Rescue Committee aid group urged all those involved in the fighting to "do everything within their power to protect civilians". Abadi's office said the militias would remain on the outskirts of Kirkuk rather than enter the city. The PUK controls Kirkuk, but KDP-tied peshmerga control three of the provinces five oil fields.

Although Iraqi officials portrayed the Kurds as retreating without a fight, Kurdish officials said Peshmerga clashed with the "Popular Mobilisation", Shiite forces trained and armed by Iran that operate alongside regular Iraqi troops.

Brig Gen Bahzad Ahmed, a spokesman for Kurdish forces, said federal forces 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.

The military offensive, which Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had vowed to avoid, follows three weeks of escalating tensions since the Kurds voted overwhelmingly in favor of statehood on September 25. However, the vote was never held.

Washington, which arms and trains both Iraqi federal forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga to fight Islamic State militants, called on "all parties to immediately cease military action and restore calm", according to a U.S. Embassy statement.

Part of the PUK, much divided since its leader Jalal Talabani suffered a stroke and sank into a coma, opposed the independence referendum as a manoeuvre by Mr Barzani to present himself as the great Kurdish nationalist leader.

Pro-PUK forces were deployed south of the city, including at oil fields, while fighters loyal to the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), linked to Iraqi Kurd leader Massud Barzani who initiated the referendum, were deployed to the north. "We have only acted to fulfil our constitutional duty and extend the federal authority and impose security and protect the national wealth in this city", he said.

No resistance was reported as the operation was launched, and Iraqi troops said they had been instructed to avoid violence.

Meanwhile Turkey, which fears Kurdish independence in Iraq could lead to similar calls from its own Kurdish minority, praised Baghdad, saying it was "ready for any form of co-operation with the Iraqi government in order to end the PKK presence in Iraqi territory".

Echoing the Iraqi president's concerns, Galloway, too, called for the immediate resumption of dialogue between Baghdad and Erbil with a view to easing the political tensions caused by last month's illegitimate referendum on Kurdish independence.

Moreover, the U.S. senator underscored that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the Kurdish Regional Government should begin talks about Kurdish independence from Iraq at an appropriate time.

The Kurds have been in control of six fields in the Kirkuk region providing some 340,000 of the 550,000 barrels per day exported by the regional administration.

They would provide crucial revenue to Baghdad, which has been left cash-strapped from the global fall in oil prices and three years of battle against IS.