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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Iraqi Forces Seize Key Sites in Kirkuk, Kurdish Stronghold

By Ken Bredemeier October 16, 2017

Iraqi government forces swept into the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk on Monday, capturing the governor's office, key military sites and an oil field.

In a lightning-fast strike, Baghdad's U.S.-trained troops entered the northern city and, on orders from Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, raised Iraqi flags in place of the Kurdish banners.

The move came less than a day after launching the operation in response to last month's Kurdish vote for independence that the central government declared was illegal.

Baghdad described the advance as largely unopposed, but an aid organization said some Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi fighters were killed in an overnight clash south of Kirkuk before the government troops advanced into the city. The peshmerga said Baghdad would pay "a heavy price" for the "war on the Kurdistan people."

When asked about the situation during a press briefing at the White House, U.S. President Donald Trump said the United States is remaining neutral, noting the "very good relationship" with the Kurds and that "we've also been on the side of Iraq."

"We don't like the fact that they're clashing," Trump said Monday. "We are not taking sides in that battle."

Washington, which has supported the Iraqi forces and helped train Kurdish fighters in the battle against Islamic State jihadists, called for calm in the skirmish over Kirkuk, not wanting to ignite a new front in Iraq's 14-year civil war.

"We are monitoring the situation in Kirkuk closely and are very concerned by reports of a confrontation," the U.S. State Department said. "We are engaged with all parties in Iraq to de-escalate tension."

Earlier, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said, "We call on all parties to immediately cease military action and restore calm while we continue to work with officials from the central and regional governments to reduce tensions and avoid further clashes. We support the peaceful exercise of joint administration by the central and regional governments, consistent with the Iraqi Constitution, in all disputed areas."

The embassy said Islamic State "remains the true enemy of Iraq, and we urge all parties to remain focused on finishing the liberation of their country from this menace."

On Capitol Hill, Senator Jack Reed, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told VOA the situation could inhibit efforts to fight the Islamic State militant group, urging calm to avoid a "bitter, sectarian strife."

"There is great danger that military actions in Kirkuk could get out of control and that's something that we have be very, very conscious of and put all we can in terms of diplomatic pressure on the government, both in Baghdad and in Irbil, to pull back and discuss future arrangements," Reed said.

Al-Abadi said the military operation was necessary to "protect the unity of the country, which was in danger of partition" because of the Kurdish referendum.

"We call upon all citizens to cooperate with our heroic armed forces, which are committed to our strict directives to protect civilians in the first place, and to impose security and order, and to protect state installations and institutions," al-Abadi said.

"We have only acted to fulfill our constitutional duty to extend federal authority and impose security and protect the national wealth in this city, which we want to remain a city of peaceful coexistence for all Iraqis," he said.

Before Monday's Kirkuk seizure, Iraqi state television reported that government troops had taken control of "vast areas" in Kirkuk province overnight. Kurdish officials disputed that account, but said Iraqi security forces backed by militias were involved in a "major, multi-pronged operation" meant to enter Kirkuk city and seize the air base and oil fields.

The Kurdistan Regional Security Council said the pro-government fighters had advanced from Taza Khurmatu, about 10 kilometers south of Kirkuk, to launch an "unprovoked attack" on peshmerga forces.

Kurds have controlled Kirkuk city since pushing out Islamic State fighters who swept into Iraq in 2014, and have long disagreed with the central government over who should control areas in the surrounding province, including its oil fields.

Tensions rose further three weeks ago when the government of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region held the independence referendum that was overwhelmingly approved by those who voted.

Abadi's government rejected the referendum as illegal, as did neighboring Turkey and Iran, which also have large Kurdish populations.

The United States said the vote lacked legitimacy and that it supports a "united" Iraq.

During the multi-national fight against Islamic State, the United States has provided military supplies and training to both the Iraqi armed forces and the peshmerga.

VOA's Carla Babb, Chris Hannas and Nike Ching contributed to this report.

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