Iraqi government forces have captured a majority of Kirkuk from the Kurdish Peshmerga after a midnight offensive on Sunday.
The incursion into the city comes three weeks after the autonomous Kurdistan Region held an independence referendum resulting in an overwhelming mandate to separate from Baghdad.
Thousands of civilians returned to their homes in Kirkuk after fleeing from the city when Iraqi forces entered.
Kirkuk has a majority Kurdish population and was allowed to vote on Sept. 25.
Kurds held the city since 2014 when Daesh (IS) swept through the northern regions during their “lightening offensive” when they captured large swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.
The Kurdish military wing, known as the Peshmerga, were credited with defending key positions outside Kirkuk as Iraqi soldiers largely retreated during the militant advance.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had denounced the vote as unconstitutional, but the Kurdistan Regional Government insisted on its legitimacy.
The United States warned against the referendum in September, saying it feared it would disrupt the war against so-called Islamic State.
Now, Washington says they are “engaged with all parties in Iraq to de-escalate tension.”
U.S. President Donald Trump said they were “not taking sides.”
“We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing.”
The U.S. provided arms to both Iraqi and Kurdish forces to drive out Daesh from Iraq, including an eight-month-long offensive against IS in the major strategic city of Mosul.
KRG President Masoud Barzani said in October of 2016 that once the militants were driven from Mosul, they would hold a referendum. Mosul was liberated by allied forces during the summer of 2017.
Iraqi PM Abadi called upon citizens to co-operate with Iraqi federal forces in a statement posted on Monday.
“We call upon the Peshmerga forces to perform their duty under the federal leadership as part of the Iraqi armed forces,” the statement read, also asking business leaders in Kirkuk to continue work as normal.
Al-Abadi promised to defend citizen “rights, their gains, and national wealth from waste and corruption.”
“It is the property of all Iraqis, and we must live in this nation without discrimination.”
The campaign to liberate Mosul was launched in October 2016 by Iraqi security forces along with the Kurdish Peshmerga, Sunni Arab tribesmen, and Shia militia numbering around 50,000 in total. The offensive was slow to start due to tough resistance from so-called Islamic State.
A U.S.-led coalition including the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and France were active in different roles in the offensive ranging from airstrikes, ground support behind the front lines, and battleground medical camps.
Other members of the Combined Joint Task Force of Operation Inherent Resolve include Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Jordan, Morocco, the Netherlands, and Turkey.
The offensive’s second phase commenced late December 2016, with quick Iraqi gains in the eastern side of the former “Second City” of Iraq.
More details to follow. Image 1 of Iraqi forces flashing victory as they ride into Kirkuk taken Oct. 16, 2017 from Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images.