Iraqi forces began an operation to seize the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk and its surrounding oilfields early Monday, with Iraq’s prime minister calling on residents of the disputed territory to cooperate with troops entering the area.
In a statement aired on Iraqi state television, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered security forces to seize control of the northern Iraqi city, which has been in Kurdish hands since 2014.
By early Monday morning, Iraqi troops claimed to have taken control of several areas around the city, including a power plant, a police station, an airbase, and the North Gas Company. An Iraqi commander said Kurdish officials had agreed to hand over North Oil and North Gas facilities without conflict, and an Iraqi oil official said there had been no disruption to oil production, according to Reuters.
The Kurdistan Regional Council said in a statement that Iraqi forces had launched a “major, multi-pronged operation to enter the city” and take over its military base and oilfields. Iraqi forces had attacked Kurdish peshmerga forces, the statement said, “using US military equipment, including Abrams tanks and Humvees.” The statement also claimed that Kurdish fighters had destroyed at least five Humvees.
The standoff comes after weeks of escalating tensions following September’s independence referendum in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region. Iraq’s prime minister has repeatedly called for Kurdish leaders to surrender control of Kirkuk and other areas in northern Iraq that have been under their control since 2014. The central government of Iraq and the autonomous Kurdish region have long been at odds over the disputed territory and its oil revenues.
Since the independence referendum, the Iraqi government has halted international flights and currency transfers in the region. On Sunday night, Iran announced that it had agreed to Iraq’s request to close its borders with the Iraqi Kurdish region. The United States, which has supplied and trained both Iraqi security forces and the peshmerga, also opposed the referendum, arguing that it would undermine the fight against ISIS and further destabilize Iraq.
The Kurds, however, appear to be holding their ground. In tweets early Monday, senior Kurdish presidential adviser Hemin Hawrami warned that "thousands of volunteers from other cities of Kurdistan are pouring in to Kirkuk."
"Kurdistan reaction will be much stronger than they expected," he said.