0725 GMT February 16, 2019
In the second day of a lightning government advance to take back towns and countryside from forces of the Kurdish semiautonomous region, Kurdish troops known as Peshmerga pulled out of the long disputed Khanaqin area near the Iranian border, Reuters reported.
Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior member of Iran’s Expediency Council, rejected the notion that Iran helped the Iraqi government to take full control over the disputed region of Kirkuk, Tasnim News Agency reported.
“Iran has no role in the Kirkuk operation,” Velayati told reporters on the sidelines of his meeting with Special Envoy of France to Syria Franck Gellet in Tehran on Tuesday.
Government troops took control of the last two oilfields in the vicinity of Kirkuk, a city of one million people that the Peshmerga abandoned the previous day in the face of the government advance. An Izadi group allied to Baghdad also took control of the town of Sinjar.
The government advances have redrawn the map of northern Iraq, rolling back gains by the Kurds who infuriated Baghdad last month by holding a referendum on secession.
The Kurds govern three mountainous northern provinces in a semiautonomous region, and have also held a wide crescent of additional territory in northern Iraq, much of which they captured after helping drive out Daesh terrorists.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered his troops on Monday to raise their flag over all Kurdish-held territory outside the semiautonomous region itself. They achieved a swift victory in Kirkuk, reaching the center of the city in less than a day.
The fighting in one of Iraq’s main oil-producing areas has helped return a risk premium to oil prices. After months of range-bound trading, benchmark Brent crude is now above $58 a barrel, up almost a third from its midyear levels.
Oil officials in Baghdad said all the fields near Kirkuk were working normally on Tuesday after the last came under government control. Kirkuk is the base of Iraq’s Northern Oil Company, one of the two giant state energy firms that provide nearly all government revenue.
So far most of the advances appear to have come unopposed, with Kurds withdrawing before government forces move in. There have been reports of just one major clash, in the early hours of Monday on the outskirts of Kirkuk.
In Kirkuk, one of Iraq’s most diverse cities, members of the Turkmen ethnic group who have opposed Kurdish rule had celebrated on Monday, driving through the streets in convoys and firing weapons in the air.
Some Kurdish families who had left the city on Monday were already returning home. They said thousands of Kurdish fighters in convoys were lining up in a long queue attempting to flee Kirkuk toward the Kurdish regional capital Erbil, which clogged the road and made it difficult for civilians to leave.
For the Kurds, the loss of territory, particularly Kirkuk which Kurdish folklore views as the heart of their homeland, is a severe blow just three weeks after they voted to declare the independent state that had been their goal for decades.