Iraqi government forces have retaken the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk, along with its nearby oil fields and military base.
Fighting broke out early on Monday in Northern Iraq, the culmination of decades-old tensions that came to a head last month when the Kurds of northern Iraq voted for independence from Baghdad. The nonbinding referendum was opposed by every country in the region except Israel.
Iraqi forces fled the disputed region as Islamic State fighters tried to take it in 2014. They were fought off by Kurdish fighters, who have occupied it ever since.
Kurdish officials said Iraqi troops and state-backed militias launched a “major, multi-pronged” attack, which caused “lots of casualties” in battles south of the city.
Earlier state-run TV reported that Iraqi forces faced no resistance as they moved into the region. Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi said he had ordered troops to “impose security in the city in cooperation with the inhabitants and the peshmerga,” or Kurdish fighters.
Indeed, the Iraqis’ swift advance into the city has caused a rift among Kurdish factions. Per the BBC:
The Peshmerga General Command, which is led by President Massoud Barzani of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), accused officials from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of aiding “the plot against the people of Kurdistan”.
The PUK denied being part of ordering any withdrawal, saying dozens of their fighters had been killed and hurt, but noted “not even one KDP Peshmerga has been martyred as of yet in the fighting in Kirkuk”.
Once in the heart of the city, Iraqi fighters removed the Kurdish flags from the city, reports the New York Times. Thousands fled the city ahead of the operation by Iraqi troops, though others in diverse Kirkuk celebrated the arrival of government forces.
The Iraqi government has been increasing pressure on the Kurdish region in recent weeks, shuttering its two international airports and asking Turkey and Iran to close its borders with the region. Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish region, offered to negotiate with Baghdad on Sunday, but al-Abadi said there would be no talks until the Kurds agreed to annul the referendum vote.
Aside from the obvious issues caused by another armed conflict in the Middle East, the fighting puts the United States in an awkward position because it has trained and equipped both sides as part of the effort to eradicate the Islamic State. The U.S.-led coalition against ISIS said it’s monitoring the situation and urging all sides to “avoid escalatory actions.”
President Donald Trump, speaking at a press conference in the White House Rose Garden Monday afternoon said, “We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing.” He added that the U.S. is “not taking sides.”