Iraqi Forces Move Into Kirkuk in Defeat-ISIS Fight, Spokesman Says

It will take time for Iraq and its Kurdish region to restore amicable relations after the strains of the past three weeks.

Iraqi forces thrust into Kirkuk city, capital of the oil-rich province, and took control of the governor's office, which had been left deserted, the federal police chief said.

The exodus in buses and cars towards Arbil and Sulaimaniyah, the two main cities of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, created traffic jams on roads leading out of Kirkuk.

"We're leaving because we're scared there will be clashes" in the ethnically mixed city of 850,000 people, said 51-year-old Chounem Qader.

Others grabbed weapons and descended into the streets to help defend Kirkuk against what the Kurdish Region Security Council described as "a major, multi-pronged operation" meant to enter the city and take over a key airbase and oil fields.

"We have not seen levels of violence suggested in some media reports", he said, adding that the coalition strongly urges all sides to avoid additional escalatory actions, opposes violence from any party, and urges against destabilizing actions that distract from the fight against ISIS and undermine Iraq's stability.

The International Rescue Committee aid group urged all those involved in the fighting to "do everything within their power to protect civilians".

Oilfields near Kirkuk halted production, but Baghdad said it would be quickly restarted. The PUK controls Kirkuk, but KDP-tied peshmerga control three of the provinces five oil fields.

A Kurdish health official said at least 10 peshmerga fighters were killed and 27 wounded during fighting overnight, but there was no confirmation of the toll from the Kurdish government.

Washington arms and trains both Iraqi federal forces and the Peshmerga to fight Islamic State militants.

The operation follows an armed standoff between Kurdish forces and the Iraqi army prompted by the September 25 non-binding referendum that produced a resounding "yes" for Kurdish independence.

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Inside the Kurdish region, elections are slated to be held next month and the two major parties will be looking to leverage the crisis to win votes.

The Kurdistan Region Security Council said early Monday that the peshmerga destroyed at least five USA -supplied Humvees being used by Iraq's state-sanctioned militias.

The presidents of Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan held talks Sunday to defuse an escalating crisis, after a deadline for Kurdish forces to withdraw from disputed positions was extended by 24 hours.

Part of the PUK, much divided since its leader Jalal Talabani suffered a stroke and sank into a coma, opposed the independence referendum as a manoeuvre by Mr Barzani to present himself as the great Kurdish nationalist leader.

Before 2014, the Iraqi government extracted and exported oil from Kirkuk's fields.

"We have only acted to fulfill our constitutional duty and extend the federal authority and impose security and protect the national wealth in this city", said Abadi.

It remains unclear how far Iraq's army and its militia partners intend to advance, but the importance of Kirkuk and the complexity of the armed alliances increase the "potential for political and military miscalculations", said Glen Ransom, Iraq analyst at Control Risks in Dubai.

Ankara, which fears the independence vote by the Iraqi Kurds could spark similar moves by its own Kurdish minority, said it was ready to help Baghdad oust Kurdish fighters from Kirkuk.

Kirkuk, long claimed by the Kurds as part of their historic territory, has emerged as the main flashpoint in the dispute.

Tensions between Baghdad and the regional Kurdish government have been tense in the wake of Kurdistan's independence referendum late last month where some 92.7 percent of voters chose to leave Iraq.

Kirkuk's oil fields and deposits inside the adjacent Kurdish region were exporting about 600,000 bpd through a Kurd-controlled pipeline to Turkey, according to a person familiar with the matter, asking not to be identified because the information is private. Iraq is the second-largest OPEC producer, pumping most of its 4.47 million barrels a day from fields in the south and shipping it from the Persian Gulf port of Basra.

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