Iraqi forces on Friday took control of the last district in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk that was still in the hands of Kurdish peshmerga fighters, security sources said.
The district of Altun Kupri, or Perde in Kurdish, lies on the road between the city of Kirkuk — which fell to Iraqi forces on Monday — and Irbil, capital of the semi-autonomous northern Iraqi region of Kurdistan, which voted in a referendum last month to secede from Iraq.
A force made up of U.S.-trained Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service units, Federal Police and Iranian-backed fighters known as Popular Mobilization began their advance on Altun Kupri at 7:30 a.m., said an Iraqi military spokesman.
Kurdish peshmerga forces withdrew from the town, located on the Zab River, after battling the advancing Iraqi troops with machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, Iraqi security sources said. Neither side gave information about casualties.
The Iraqi central government forces have advanced into Kirkuk province largely unopposed as most peshmerga forces withdrew without a fight.
The government advance has transformed the balance of power in northern Iraq and is likely to scuttle the independence aspirations of the Kurds, who voted overwhelmingly on Sept. 25 to secede from Iraq and take the oil fields of Kirkuk with them.
The fighting at Altun Kupri marked only the second instance of significant violent resistance by the Kurds in Kirkuk province. Dozens were killed or wounded in the previous clash on Monday, the first night of the government advance.
The U.S. State Department said it was concerned by reports of violent clashes around Altun Kupri.
The State Department made clear that even though federal authority was reasserted over “disputed areas,” that in no way changes their status — “they remain disputed until their status is resolved in accordance with the Iraqi resolution” in what appeared to be a nod to the Kurds and their assertion that they have a stake in these territories.
Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on Friday for the state to protect Kurds in northern Iraq, a rare political intervention by a figure whose words have the force of law for most of Iraq’s Shiite majority.
Kurdish officials said tens of thousands of Kurds fled Kirkuk and Tuz to the two main cities of the Kurdish autonomous region, Irbil and Sulaimaniya.
Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution allows the Kurds self-rule in three mountainous northern provinces and guarantees them a fixed percentage of Iraq’s total oil income, an arrangement that saw them prosper while the rest of the country was at war.
Although Kirkuk is outside the autonomous region, many Kurds consider it the heart of their historic homeland and its oil to be their birthright. Its loss makes their quest for independence appear remote, since it would leave them with only about half the oil revenue they had sought to claim for themselves.
An Iraqi military spokesman accused the peshmerga of using rockets supplied by Germany. Germany said it hoped to resume its mission training Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq on Sunday, provided the conflict did not worsen. Berlin suspended it a week ago as tensions mounted.
Source: News agencies