Iraq army 'launches operation to retake Kirkuk' from Kurdish authorities

Haider Al-Abadi

The referendum was held in three autonomous provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan, but also in nearby Kurdish-held areas including Kirkuk.

The Baghdad central government has taken a series of steps to isolate the autonomous Kurdish region since its overwhelming vote for independence in a September 25 referendum, including banning worldwide flights from going there.

Barzani and other Kurdish leaders, who met to discuss the crisis in the town of Dokan, renewed their offer to "resolve peacefully" the crisis with Baghdad. The vote delivered an overwhelming "Yes" for independence.

The Iraqi government accused Kurdish authorities on Sunday of bringing fighters from Turkey's separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and said it considered the move a "declaration of war".

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The Iraqi parliament asked Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to send troops to Kirkuk and other disputed areas after the official referendum results - which overwhelmingly backed independence - were proclaimed.

But the KRG's Security Council expressed alarm late on Thursday at what it said was a significant Iraqi military build-up south of Kirkuk "including tanks, artillery, Humvees and mortars", according to Reuters. Iraqi paramilitary groups backing the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad had warned the Peshmerga to leave a position north of the Maktab Khalid junction by midnight Saturday, a KRG security official said.

No clashes were reported, about an hour after the deadline, but a resident said dozens of young Kurdish were deployed around Kirkuk with machine guns in response to the warning. Iranian Major General Qassem Soleimani arrived on Saturday in the Kurdistan region to hold talks about the crisis. The Popular Mobilization is an army apart from the regular army and officially reports to Abadi. US coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon told The Associated Press that military movements in the region were in line with recent operations to clear the terrorist group's fighters from Hawija, a town roughly 40 miles west of Kirkuk. The Peshmerga deployment prevented Kirkuk's oil fields from falling into militant hands.

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