Iraqi Forces Complete Takeover of Kirkuk Province After Clashing With Kurds

BAGHDAD/ KIRKUK, Iraq (Reuters) -
Smoke rises while Iraqi security forces use bombs as Kurdish security forces withdraw from a checkpoint in Alton Kupri, outskirts of Erbil, Iraq.(AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed)

Iraqi forces took control on Friday of the last district in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk still in the hands of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters following a three-hour battle, 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 Erbil, capital of the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq that voted in a referendum last month to secede from Iraq against Baghdad’s wishes.

A force made up of U.S-trained Iraqi Counterterrorism Service units, Iranian-backed Popular Mobilisation and Federal Police began their advance on Altun Kupri at 7:30 a.m. (local time), said an Iraqi military spokesman.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces withdrew from the town of Altun Kupri, located on the Zab river, after battling the advancing Iraqi troops with machine guns, mortars and rocket propelled grenades, security sources said.

It was not immediately clear whether there had been any casualties in the fighting.

The Iraqi forces have advanced into Kirkuk Province largely unopposed as most Peshmerga forces withdrew without a fight.

The fighting at Altun Kupri marked only the second instance of significant violent resistance by the Kurds in Kirkuk Province since Monday.

Altun Kupri marks the administrative limit between Kirkuk and Erbil. It belongs administratively to Kirkuk Province.

Iraqi forces are seeking to reestablish Baghdad’s authority over territory captured by the Kurdish Peshmerga outside the official boundaries of the Kurdistan region in the course of the war on Islamic State terrorists.

The Peshmerga had moved into Kirkuk after the Iraqi army fled the region in the face of Islamic State’s advance in 2014. The Kurdish move prevented Kirkuk’s oilfields from falling into the hands of the terrorists.