Iraqi and Kurdish officials have reported that Iraqi security forces have launched an operation near Kirkuk, a Kurdish-held region in northeastern Iraq.
Lieutenant Colonel Salah el-Kinani of the Iraqi army’s 9th armored division, in an interview with Reuters news agency, confirmed that the operation is aimed at securing the strategic K1 airbase and surrounding oil fields.
According to Iraqi state TV, Iraqi security forces were met with minimal resistance when they initiated the operation in the rural areas outside of Kirkuk.
Kurdish officials have denied these claims, saying that their Peshmerga forces remain in full control of the airbase and oil fields that were reportedly the target of the Iraqi operation.
Reuters has confirmed, however, that Iraqi Special Forces have seized control of the K1 airbase.
An official Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) press release stated that, at 23:30 local time, Iraqi security forces and local Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) had launched a “multi-pronged operation intended to enter the city and take over K1 (airbase) and oil fields.”
The statement continues: “At approximately 02:30 they attacked Peshmerga forces from two fronts in the Taza-Kirkuk intersection and Maryam Bag Bridge, both in South of Kirkuk, using U.S. military equipment, including Abrams tanks and Humvees.”
According to the KRSC statement, Peshmerga forces destroyed Humvees from the Iraqi operation.
Both Kurdish and Iraqi forces are utilizing military equipment provided by the United States that are earmarked for the war against the Islamic State group.
U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has indicated that the United States has been working to de-escalate the situation between the two parties, though their official position is a unified Iraq.
The military operation follows the controversial Kurdish Independence referendum, in late September, in which a vast majority of voters endorsed an independent Kurdistan state that would break away from Baghdad.
“We oppose violence from any party, and urge against destabilizing actions that distract from the fight against ISIS and further undermine Iraq’s stability,” said Pentagon spokeswoman Laura Seal.
“Despite the Kurdistan Regional Government’s unfortunate decision to pursue a unilateral referendum, dialogue remains the best option to defuse ongoing tensions and longstanding issues, in accordance with the Iraqi constitution.”
Kurdish commanders have expressed a willingness to fight until defeat to defend Kirkuk from Iraqi forces and PMF units, however Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi called on Kurdish Peshmerga force to operate under Iraqi federal authority.
The U.S. Department of State has reiterated these points in a series of press statements leading up to and after the unilateral independence referendum.
The Iranian government has taken measures to isolate the Kurdistan Regional Government following the unilateral independence referendum, following the steps of the Iraqi government.
No official statement has been released by Iran in regards to the Iraqi military operation in Kirkuk at this time, though Kurdish state TV, Rudaw, has claimed that members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) are participating in the operation.