Maher Chmaytelli & Mustafa Mahmoud
Monday, October 16, 2017
Iraqi government forces captured the major Kurdish-held oil city of Kirkuk, responding to a Kurdish referendum on independence.
BAGHDAD/KIRKUK, Iraq, Oct 16 (Reuters) – Iraqi government forces captured the major Kurdish-held oil city of Kirkuk on Monday, responding to a Kurdish referendum on independence with a bold lightning strike that transforms the balance of power in the country.
A convoy of armoured vehicles from Iraq’s elite U.S.-trained Counter-Terrorism Force seized Kirkuk’s provincial government headquarters on Monday afternoon, less than a day after the operation began, a Reuters reporter in Kirkuk said.
Neither side gave a casualty toll for the operation. But an aid group working in Kirkuk said several Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Iraqi soldiers had been killed in an overnight clash south of the city – the only serious fighting reported.
As Iraqi forces advanced, Kurdish operators briefly shut some 350,000 barrels per day of oil output at two large Kirkuk fields, citing security concerns, oil ministry sources on both sides said. But production resumed shortly thereafter following an Iraqi threat to seize fields under Kurdish management if they did not do so, according to the sources.
It was not immediately clear whether or when the Iraqi government would seek to retake control of all Kirkuk oilfields, a vital source of revenue for the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
The short suspension in production helped push up world oil prices as the shutdown represented more than half of total Kurdish output.
A dozen Iraqi armoured vehicles arrived at the provincial government headquarters in Kirkuk and took up positions nearby, alongside local police. They pulled down the Kurdish flag and left the Iraqi flag flying.
Thousands of Kurds Flee
Thousands of Kurdish civilians fled the city of 1 million people for fear of reprisals. A Kurdish father of four who was driving out of Kirkuk towards the Kurdish regional capital Erbil to the north said: “We no longer feel safe. We hope to return to our home but right now we feel it’s dangerous for us to stay.”
Crowds of ethnic Turkmen who opposed Kurdish control of the city were celebrating. Some drove in convoys with Iraqi flags and fired shots in the air.
“This day should become a holiday, we’re so happy to have gotten rid of Barzani’s party,” said a man celebrating on a motorbike, waving the blue-and-white flag of Iraq’s Turkmen, referring to the Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani.
U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House that Washington would not take sides in the matter but “we don’t like the fact that they’re clashing.
“We’ve had for many years a very good relationship with the Kurds as you know and we’ve also been on the side of Iraq, even though we should have never been there in the first place.”
U.S. officials called for calm on both sides, seeking to avert an all-out conflict between Baghdad and the Kurds that would open an entirely new front in Iraq’s 14-year-old civil war and potentially draw in regional powers such as Turkey and Iran.
The Baghdad central government considers the Sept. 25 Kurdish independence referendum illegal, especially as it was held not just in the autonomous KRG region but in Kirkuk and other adjacent areas that Peshmerga forces occupied after driving out Islamic State militants in 2014.
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