The U.S.-led coalition battling the Islamic State group said Monday it believes that an exchange of weapons fire between Iraqi and Kurdish forces in and around Kirkuk was a “misunderstanding.”
A coalition statement said it is monitoring federal and Kurdish military vehicles and believes that they are engaged in “coordinated movements, not attacks.”
It said it was aware of reports of a “limited exchange of fire during predawn hours of darkness,” but “we believe the engagement this morning was a misunderstanding and not deliberate as two elements attempted to link up under limited visibility conditions.”
The U.S. has armed, trained and provided vital air support to both federal and Kurdish forces as part of the war against Islamic State. It has urged both sides to remain focused on the extremists.
Baghdad and the Kurdish region have long been at odds over the fate of Kirkuk, a dispute that has grown more bitter since the Kurds voted for independence last month in a nonbinding referendum.
Army Maj. Gen. Robert White, commander of coalition ground forces, said: “We continue to advocate dialogue between Iraqi and Kurdish authorities. All parties must remain focused on the defeat of our common enemy,” the Islamic State group.
Iraqi Kurdish officials said earlier Monday that federal forces and state-backed militias had launched a “major, multi-pronged” attack aimed at retaking Kirkuk.
The Kurdistan Region Security Council said in a statement that Kurdish forces known as peshmerga destroyed at least five U.S.-supplied Humvees being used by the state-sanctioned militias following an “unprovoked attack” south of the city.
Inside Kirkuk, a multiethnic city that is home to more than 1 million people, residents shuttered themselves in homes and reported hearing sporadic booms they said sounded like shelling and rocket fire.
Tension has soared since the Kurds held a nonbinding referendum last month in which they voted for independence from Iraq. The central government, along with neighboring Turkey and Iran, rejected the vote.
The central government and the autonomous Kurdish region in the north have long been divided over oil revenues and the fate of disputed territories such as Kirkuk that are controlled by Kurdish forces but are outside their self-ruled region.
The Kurds assumed control of Kirkuk, in the heart of a major oil-producing region, in the summer of 2014, when Islamic State militants swept across northern Iraq and the country’s armed forces crumbled. Baghdad has demanded the Kurds withdraw.
The Kurdish security council said an assault launched late Sunday was aimed at entering the city and retaking the K-1 military base and nearby oil fields.
State-run Al Iraqiya TV had earlier reported that federal forces rolled into parts of the countryside outside Kirkuk. Al Iraqiya carried a statement from Prime Minister Haider Abadi’s office saying he had ordered federal forces to “impose security in the city in cooperation with the inhabitants and the peshmerga.”
A commander of the local Kurdish police force said his forces remained in control of the province’s disputed oil wells. “There’s been no agreement to hand over the wells until now. As for the future, I don’t know,” Bahja Ahmad Amin said.
Iraq’s state-sanctioned militias, the mostly Shiite Arab Popular Mobilization Forces, were ordered to stay out of the city, according to Abadi’s office, and instead keep positions in the countryside. They are viewed with deep suspicion by Kurdish residents, who see them as beholden to Iran rather than Iraq’s central government. The predominantly Shiite militias are sponsored and guided by Tehran.
Ercuman Turkman, a PMF commander, said shortly before forces began moving in that he expected orders to move on Kirkuk’s oil wells, its airport and the nearby K-1 military base, but not the city. Haytham Hashem, another PMF commander, reported shelling on his position in Toz Khormato, six miles from the edge of Kirkuk.
Baghdad has been turning the screws on the Kurdish region since the September referendum, pushing Kurdish leaders to disavow the vote and accept shared administration over Kirkuk.
Iraq’s government has barred international flights to and from the region and asked neighboring Turkey and Iran to close their borders. Iran closed its three official crossings with the Kurdish region Sunday, Kurdish media reported. It also froze currency transfers to four banks operating in the Kurdish region.
Abadi has demanded shared administration over Kirkuk. His 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.
10/16 5:31 a.m.: Updated with U.S. military’s statement that the exchange was a misunderstanding.
11:05 p.m.: This article was updated with information about an attack in Kirkuk.
This article was originally posted at 6:55 p.m.