Iraqi forces launch operation for Kurdish-held oil fields, military base

Iraq PM denies attack plan as tensions rise with Kurds

The Iraqi 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 Kurdish Peshmerga forces occupied after driving out Islamic State militants in 2014.

The federal forces have restored control of Kirkuk military airport, Al Hurriya Air Base and other vital sites in Kirkuk upon directives from the Iraqi leadership.

Oil and natural gas production from the Kirkuk region is proceeding normally despite the ongoing Iraqi military operation to seize the region form Kurdish forces, another Iraqi Oil Ministry official told Reuters in Baghdad.

Fighting between Baghdad and the Kurds could open an entirely new front in Iraq's 14-year-old civil war and potentially draw in regional powers such as Turkey and Iran.

Tensions are mounting in and around the autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan, where Peshmerga forces have been put on high alert amid the mobilization of troops by Baghdad.

The Kurdistan Region Security Council said early Monday that the peshmerga destroyed at least five US -supplied Humvees being used by Iraq's state-sanctioned militias.

Iraq's Joint Operations Command (JOC), which groups all pro-government forces, did not specify whether there had been significant clashes in the operation, but the speed of the advance suggested Kurdish fighters were so far withdrawing without resistance. Washington has called for "all parties to immediately cease military action and restore calm", adding that Isis remained the true enemy of all parties in Iraq and they should focus on its elimination.

The Kurdish regional government did not initially confirm the Iraqi advances, but Rudaw, a major Kurdish TV station, reported that Peshmerga had left positions south of Kirkuk.

The ethnically and religiously diverse city has always been a flashpoint between the central government in Baghdad and the northern Kurdish region.

The referendum had faced strong opposition from most regional and worldwide actors (including the U.S., Turkey and Iran), who warned that the poll would distract from Iraq's fight against terrorism and further destabilize the already-volatile region.

The short suspension in production helped push up world oil prices as the shutdown represented more than half of total Kurdish output.

On Sunday, his cabinet accused the KRG of deploying non-Peshmerga fighters in Kirkuk, including members of the PKK, which it said was tantamount to a "declaration of war".

Kurdish claims are based off the 1957 Iraqi census, the last held in the province, which showed Kurds to be a majority in Kirkuk province, although the Turkmen and Arabs could claim a majority in Kirkuk city proper.

The Kurdish secession bid was strongly opposed by neighbours Iran and Turkey.

"The outcome of the referendum will not be nullified", the Kurdish region's Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said after consulting Kurdistan's two main political parties. Washington, allied with the Kurds for decades, pleaded vainly for them to halt a vote that could break up Iraq.

The status of Kirkuk and fate of the Kurds were left unsettled 14 years ago when a US -led invasion toppled Saddam. But as that fight comes to an end, the fear is that the two US-backed forces may go to war.

During the years of United States occupation that followed, Washington leaned on its Kurdish allies to keep their ambitions in check to avoid triggering another war amid an insurgency by Sunni Arabs.

The government said its forces, including the elite US-trained Counter Terrorism Service, had moved nearly unopposed into the industrial zone just south of Kirkuk and the oil, gas, facilities located south and west of the city.

Their leader Barzani said the time had come for an independence referendum.

Baghdad and the Kurds have long-running disputes over oil exports, extraction and sharing oil revenues.

"Despite attempts by [pro-KRG] Peshmerga forces to stop them from leaving, many families are making their way towards provinces in the Kurdish region", al-Obeidi said.

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