Iraqi forces enter Kirkuk as Kurds flee

Abadi's spokesman Saad al-Hadithi said that Iraqi government forces "do not want to. harm citizens, be they Kurdish or otherwise, but they must enforce the constitution", which gives Baghdad control in the disputed areas and over exports.

The federal forces have controlled gas and electricity plants in Kirkuk, in addition to Mariam and Khaled bridges, Sir Glan village and police station, and several checkpoints in northern city.

The KDP-affiliated Kurdistan Region Security Council said it destroyed five US -supplied Humvees used in the advance by Iraq's popular mobilization units, an umbrella group containing Iranian-backed militias that fight as part of Iraq's security forces.

"We call on all actions in the region to focus on this common threat, and avoid stoking tensions among the Iraqi people".

Overnight Iraqi national army on Sunday took control of Kirkuk's industrial district, as well as the city's oil refinery before going on the move, reportedly without any opposition from Kurdish Peshmerga militia that had controlled the area since the collapse of Islamic State (ISIL) despite it being outside of their semi-autonomous region.

Iran opened a new front in its bid for regional domination on Monday, as Iraqi government forces and Shia militias backed by the Tehran regime's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) launched an attack on the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, in the wake of last month's Kurdish independence referendum.

U.S. officials said they were "engaged with all parties in Iraq to de-escalate tension".

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the operation was necessary to "protect the unity of the country, which was in danger of partition" because of the referendum. "We remain focused on destroying ISIS", he said.

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

Iraqi commanders initially dismissed troop movements as routine deployments aimed at securing nearby Hawija, recently recaptured from Islamic State militants. They said they had set a 48-hour deadline for Kurdish forces to withdraw.

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While some celebrated in the streets, the Peshmerga General Command said Iraq's actions on Monday amounted to a "declaration of war" on the Kurdish people.

After the deadline expired, Abadi accused the Kurds of deploying militiamen from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, a faction that has waged battles for autonomy in Turkey's Kurdish region for decades.

The three fields produce some 250,000 barrels per day, accounting for 40 percent of Iraqi Kurdistan's oil exports. "There are strict orders to avoid violence".

Peshmerga forces loyal to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), a political party linked to Iraqi President Fuad Masum, a Kurd, were reported to be withdrawing from areas under their control. It said popular mobilization units took positions "outside Kirkuk".

Moreover, the United States senator underscored that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and the Kurdish Regional Government should begin talks about Kurdish independence from Iraq at an appropriate time.

The US has trained and supplied weapons to both the Iraqi army and peshmerga to fight IS, putting Washington in a hard position in the current standoff.

The referendum had faced strong opposition from most regional and global actors (including the U.S., Turkey and Iran), who warned that the poll would distract from Iraq's fight against terrorism and further destabilize the already-volatile region.

Al-Abadi's Cabinet said Sunday that fighters from Turkey's Kurdish insurgency, the PKK, were beginning to appear in Kirkuk, and declared that would be tantamount to an act of war. The Iranian-sponsored militias are viewed with deep suspicion by Iraq's Kurds, who see them as a policy implement of Tehran that threatens demographic change.

Washington has military advisers deployed with both sides in the standoff and Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said on Friday the United States was working to reduce tensions.

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