The Baghdad government yesterday recaptured territory across the breadth of northern Iraq from Kurds, widening a sudden and dramatic campaign that has shifted the balance of power in the nation almost overnight.
In the second day of a lightning campaign to take back towns and countryside from forces of the Kurdish autonomous region, Kurdish troops known as Peshmerga pulled out of the long-disputed Khanaqin area near the Iranian border.
Government troops took control of the last two oil fields in the vicinity of Kirkuk, a city of 1 million people that the Peshmerga abandoned on Monday in the face of the government advance.
A Yazidi 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 independence, which included Kirkuk.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Abadi on Monday ordered his troops to raise their flag over all Kurdish-held territory outside the autonomous region.
They achieved a swift victory in Kirkuk, reaching the center of the city in less than a day.
Meanwhile, thousands of civilians were seen streaming back to Kirkuk yesterday, driving along a main highway to the city’s east.
The Kurdish forces had built an earthen berm along the highway, reinforced by armored vehicles, but were allowing civilians to return to the city.
The advances create a dilemma for Washington, which is close allies of both Baghdad and the Kurds, and has armed and trained both sides as part of its successful campaign to drive Islamic State group fighters out of Iraq.
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 on Monday in the outskirts of Kirkuk, which Washington described as a misunderstanding.
For the Kurds, the loss of territory, particularly Kirkuk which Kurdish folklore views as the heart of their homeland, is a severe blow.
The setbacks have led to sharp accusations among the two main Kurdish political parties, which each control separate units of Peshmerga fighters.
Officials in the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Kurdish regional government leader Masoud Barzani accused the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan of his longtime rival Jalal Talabani of “treason” for abandoning Kirkuk.
The widow of Talabani, who served as ceremonial Iraqi president from 2003 to 2014 and died two weeks ago, denied blame.
Talabani said her party tried, but failed, to make the Iraqi government renounce the “plan to attack” Kirkuk through contacts with US and Iraqi government representatives.
Rudaw TV, one of the main Kurdish stations, said that Barzani would soon make a statement calling on the Kurdish factions to avoid “civil war.”
Oil officials in Baghdad said all the oil fields near Kirkuk yesterday were working normally after the last of them came under government control.
Kirkuk is the base of Iraq’s Northern Oil Company, one of the two giant state oil firms that provide nearly all government revenue.
In Sinjar, home to the small Yazidi religious minority that faced genocide in 2014 when the area was captured by Islamic State fighters, a Yazidi group called Lalesh took control of the town after the Peshmerga withdrew.
“There was no violence,” a resident said by telephone.
Additional reporting by AP
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