BAGHDAD/ERBIL – Iraqi government forces on Friday wrested a strategic sub-district of Kirkuk province following clashes with Kurdish Peshmerga forces, according to official and military sources.
“Iraqi Federal Police and counter-terrorism forces, along with Hashd al-Shaabi fighters, have deployed in — and imposed security on — Kirkuk’s northern Altunkopru sub-district,” the Iraqi Defense Ministry said in a statement.
“Altunkopru is now under the total control of federal forces,” the statement added.
Iraqi Army Captain Jabbar Hasan told Anadolu Agency on Friday that Iraqi federal forces had given Peshmerga forces 24 hours to vacate their strongholds in Altunkopru and withdraw to areas controlled by the Erbil-based Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).
Peshmerga forces, however, had rejected the ultimatum, Hasan said.
According to the army officer, Iraqi counter-terrorism forces on Friday morning launched a wide-ranging operation aimed at capturing Altunkopru from Peshmerga forces deployed in the area.
He added that violent clashes were now underway — featuring medium and heavy weapons, including artillery — between Iraqi federal forces and Peshmerga fighters.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a component of the KRG, appeared to confirm the reports.
On its official website, the PUK quoted an unnamed security source as saying that Iraqi forces were engaged in clashes with Peshmerga fighters in Altunkopru.
The same source went on to state that no casualties had been reported in the clashes.
Earlier this week, Iraqi forces moved into the northern Kirkuk province — along with other disputed parts of Iraq — following the withdrawal of Peshmerga fighters.
Tension has steadily mounted between Baghdad and Erbil since Sept. 25, when Iraqis in KRG-controlled areas — and in several disputed parts of the country — voted on whether or not to declare independence from the Iraqi state.
According to poll results announced by the KRG, almost 93 percent of those who cast ballots voted in favor of independence.
The illegitimate referendum faced sharp opposition from most regional and international actors (including the U.S., Turkey and Iran), who had warned that the poll would distract from Iraq’s fight against terrorism and further destabilize the already-volatile region.