Iraqi government forces launched an all-out assault on Kurdish peshmerga militias in the northern city of Kirkuk Monday, the Associated Press reported, as tensions between autonomous Kurdistan and the Iraqi federal government worsen following last month’s Kurdish independence referendum.
Millions of Kurds took part in the September 25th referendum, despite opposition by the Iraqi central government, which denounced the vote as illegal and illegitimate, and pledged not to recognize the results.
Some 78% of eligible voters participated in the referendum, with roughly 92% backing Kurdish independence.
Masoud Barzani, President of Iraqi Kurdistan and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, called on the Iraqi government to respect the outcome of the vote, but added that the Kurds were willing to ‘overcome hardship’ if necessary to realize independence.
“We may face hardship but we will overcome,” Barzani said, urging the Iraqi government and foreign powers “to respect the will of millions of people.”
Barzani called on the Iraqi central government to negotiate with the Kurdish Regional Government following the referendum – a move the central government has repeatedly refused.
Since then, tensions between Iraq’s central government and Kurdistan have increased.
Over the weekend, Iraqi army and militia forces encircled the disputed northern city of Kirkuk, a historically predominantly Kurdish and Turkmen city of nearly one million in the midst of an oil-rich area. The focus of government efforts at “Arabization”, Kirkuk has had a significant Arab majority for at least two decades.
Nevertheless, the Iraqi central government has lost ground in Kirkuk over the past three years, with much of the city and surrounding area coming under de facto Kurdish control.
On Monday, Kurdish forces claimed that federal Iraqi forces had launched a “major, multi-pronged attack” on Kurdish-held portions of Kirkuk, causing “lots of casualties” according to Bahzad Ahmed, a spokesman of the Kurdish forces.
Ahmed said Iraqi forces had “burnt lots of houses and killed many people” south of Kirkuk.
Kurdish leaders say Iraq has used US-built tanks and personnel vehicles in the attack, and that Kurdish peshmerga militias had managed to destroy several Iraqi vehicles during the assault.