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 US-trained Counter-Terrorism Force seized Kirkuk’s provincial government headquarters 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 organisation working in Kirkuk said several Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and members of the Iraqi forces had been killed in an overnight clash south of Kirkuk - 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.
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.
President Donald Trump said the United States would not take sides in the clash but expressed disappointment the two sides were in conflict.
The US military said its commanders in Iraq were urging Iraqi and Kurdish forces to avoid escalation and played down reports of fighting.
‘We support the peaceful exercise of joint administration by the central and regional governments, consistent with the Iraqi constitution, in all disputed areas,’ the US State Department said in a statement.
Trump told reporters at the White House: ‘We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing. We’re not taking sides.’
‘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,’ he said.
Washington arms and trains both Iraqi federal forces and the Peshmerga to fight Islamic State militants.
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