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Clashes around oil-rich Kirkuk raise specter of a new civil war in Iraq

The sun bursts through the clouds during a mission with the Sons of Iraq, Iraqi security forces, and U.S. Soldiers from 1st Battalion, 8th Cavalry, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, as they head out on a cordon and search mission, near Forward Operating Base Warrior, in Kirkuk, Iraq, Sept. 23. (DVIDS)

Gunfire and explosions rang out Monday as Iraqi forces moved to wrest a contested city and its oil fields from a Kurdish militia, raising the specter of another civil war in a country still battling against Islamic State.

The government forces said they were under orders to avoid violence and had coordinated the takeover of a military base, airport and other infrastructure near the city of Kirkuk with the Kurdish faction that had controlled them since federal troops fled an Islamic State assault in 2014.

State television reported that the advancing troops — which include members of Iraq’s army, counterterrorism commandos and federal police — took over large parts of the surrounding province without a fight.

But residents said they heard exchanges of fire in the early morning hours on the southern outskirts of Kirkuk city. Terrified families piled into cars and fled, clogging highways leading to Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region to the north and east of the city.

Some residents grabbed weapons and descended into the streets vowing to defend Kirkuk against what leaders in the Kurdish region characterized as a major, multipronged attack. Others who opposed Kurdish control of the city cheered the federal forces as they rolled by.

The ethnically and religiously diverse province of Kirkuk, home to 10 percent of Iraq’s oil reserves, has long been a flashpoint between the Arab-led central government in Baghdad and the Kurdish leadership in Irbil, some 60 miles to the north. Tensions ramped up after Kurds voted overwhelming for independence in a referendum held last month over the objections of Baghdad.

The United States, Iran and Turkey also opposed the plebiscite, fearing it would ignite ethnic divisions across the region and divert attention from the fight against Islamic State as it enters its endgame.

The standoff has posed a particular dilemma for the United States, which regards the federal government and Kurdish forces known as the peshmerga as vital allies against the militants and has provided them weapons, training and other aid.

As both sides massed troops and armor on the southern approaches to Kirkuk in recent days, U.S. military officials and diplomats pressed them to dial back the rhetoric and avoid steps that could lead to open hostilities.

Asked at a news conference Monday about the fighting, President Donald Trump said that the United States had a “very good relationship with the Kurds,” as well as with Iraq, and regretted that the two sides were at odds.

“We’re not taking sides, but we don’t like the fact that they’re clashing,” he said.

The standoff has also exposed deep rifts among the Kurdish forces. Some commanders loyal to an opposition party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, agreed to hand over positions to federal troops while others loyal to the governing Kurdish Democratic Party pledged to resist them.

In a statement Monday, the peshmerga general command accused PUK officials of a “betrayal against the Kurdistan nation,” saying they abandoned key positions to Shiite Muslim militias and members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard who were among the advancing forces.

The Kurdistan Region Security Council said its forces had destroyed five U.S.-supplied Humvees that were used by the government sanctioned militias, known as Popular Mobilization Forces.

In a statement read on state television early Monday, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi took a placatory but firm stance, saying it was his constitutional duty to protect the unity of a country that was in danger of being divided while Iraq was fighting “an existential war against terror.”

“We reassure our people in Kurdistan and Kirkuk specifically that we care for their safety and interests,” al-Abadi said.

He called on “all citizens to cooperate with the armed forces” who he said had been tasked with “protecting civilians in the first degree and imposing security and order and protecting the facilities and institutions of the state.”

He later ordered the Iraqi flag raised in all disputed areas.

Among the facilities captured Monday were the Kirkuk airport, the K1 base and oil fields on the outskirts of the city, according to a statement by Iraq’s military command. “Units are still advancing,” the statement said.

By the end of the day, federal forces had reached municipal buildings in the center of Kirkuk. Images circulated on social media showed a commander with Baghdad’s “Golden Division” of special forces seated in the governor’s office chair.

The U.S.-led coalition said in a statement that it had been monitoring the advances and believed they were “coordinated movements, not attacks” on the peshmerga.

The coalition confirmed an exchange of fire south of Kirkuk, but attributed it to a misunderstanding as two units attempted to link up in the predawn hours.

The Iraqi Embassy in Washington blamed the incident on “regional party militias from outside the Kirkuk province security apparatus,” who it said tried to disrupt a carefully coordinated “redeployment” and in some cases fired upon federal forces in an attempt to provoke a conflict.

Residents said there was shelling in the town of Tuz Khurmatu, where there have been periodic clashes between Kurdish forces, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, and Shiite militias, which include local Turkmen fighters. Casualty figures were not immediately available.

Ali Hilla, a member of a Shiite militia stationed in Tuz Khurmatu, said his forces had orders not to engage the Kurds.

“Our commanders said, ‘We don’t want to escalate the situation with them,’ ” he said by phone. “But then they attacked us some time after 2 a.m. So then we got the order to attack anyone who fires on us.”

Though leaders in Irbil and Baghdad share a common enemy in the Islamic State extremists, long-standing disputes over territorial boundaries and the distribution of oil revenues remain unresolved.

What happens next will depend in part on how much of a fight the Kurdish regional leader, Massoud Barzani, decides to put up for oil fields to the northwest of Kirkuk that remain under the control of forces loyal to his party.

Al-Abadi has also hinted that he could try to reassert authority over other areas that are under the control of Kurdish forces but claimed by Baghdad.

“The fight is clearly not over,” said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East and North Africa program director at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. “The potential for civil war is there.”

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(Times staff writer Zavis reported from Beirut and special correspondents Resol and Bulos from Chamchamal, Iraq, and Amman, Jordan, respectively.)

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© 2017 Los Angeles Times

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