Iraqi Kurdish officials said on Monday that federal forces and state-backed militias had launched a “major, multi-pronged” attack aimed at retaking the disputed northern city of Kirkuk that is held by the Kurdish peshmerga forces.
One local Iraqi Kurdish commander said federal forces had seized an oil and gas company and other industrial sites south of Kirkuk, in fighting with Kurdish forces that caused “lots of casualties.”
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 forces 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.
Tensions have reached a high point between the Kurds and Iraqis since the Kurds voted for independence last month in a non-binding referendum rejected as unconstitutional by Baghdad.
Both sides are receiving US support in the fight against the Islamic State. Official U.S. spokesman U.S. Army Col. Ryan Dillon 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.”
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