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25 Kurds killed in Kirkuk fighting, say medics

Mourners in Suleimaniyah express grief on Tuesday during a funeral of their relatives — Kurdish Peshmerga fighters — who were killed during an advance by Iraqi forces on Kirkuk. (Reuters)
KIRKUK: A hospital in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Suleimaniyah said Tuesday it received the bodies of 25 Kurdish fighters killed in clashes a day earlier over the disputed city of Kirkuk.
Dr. Omeid Hama Ali, director of Suleimaniyah Hospital’s emergency department, said the hospital treated 44 other wounded fighters.
Iraqi forces took control of the two largest oil fields in Kirkuk dealing a heavy blow to the finances of the autonomous Kurdish government.
The Kurds withdrew without a fight after federal government troops and militia seized the provincial governor’s office and key military bases and oil fields as tensions boiled over following a Kurdish vote for independence last month.
“Federal police units took control of the Bai Hassan and Havana oil fields,” north of the city of Kirkuk, a statement said.
Kurdish technicians had halted operations at the two fields and left the wells on Monday, an Oil Ministry official in Baghdad said.
The fields accounted for around 250,000 barrels per day (bpd) of the 650,000 bpd that the autonomous Kurdish region exported under its own auspices, outside the purview of Baghdad, and their loss is a major blow to its revenues.
The regional government took over the two fields in 2014 when federal troops withdrew in the face of the militants’ lightning advance through areas north and west of Baghdad.
The autonomous Kurdish region is already going through its worst economic crisis after Baghdad severed its air links to the outside world and neighboring Iran closed its border to trade in oil products.
Kirkuk lies outside the autonomous region but forms part of a swathe of historically Kurdish-majority territory that the Kurds want to incorporate in it against the wishes of Baghdad.
Meanwhile, thousands of civilians are streaming back to Kirkuk.
The civilians were heading back on Tuesday, driving along a main highway to the city’s east. The Peshmerga forces had built an earthen berm along the highway, reinforced by armored vehicles, but were allowing civilians to return to the city.
Many returnees were seen with their children and belongings packed tight in their cars.
The Iraqi forces’ retaking of Kirkuk came only two weeks after they had fought together with the Kurdish fighters to neutralize Daesh in Iraq, their common enemy.
The vastly outnumbered Kurdish forces appear to have bowed to demands from the central government that they hand over the so-called disputed territories outside the Kurds’ autonomous region, including areas seized from Daesh in recent years.
Iraqi forces were massed in the north after driving Daesh from Hawija, one of its last strongholds in the country. The US is closely allied with both the Iraqi military and Kurdish forces, and had urged them to avoid further escalation.
The Kurds had included the disputed areas in a non-binding referendum last month in which more than 90 percent of voters favored independence. The Iraqi government, as well as Turkey and Iran, which border the land-locked Kurdish region, rejected the vote.
Meanwhile, thousands of civilians were seen streaming back to Kirkuk, 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. Many returned with their children, in cars packed with their belongings.
“Kirkuk was sold out, everyone ran away. But now the situation has stabilized, and people are returning to their homes. Nothing will happen, God willing, and Kirkuk will return to how it was,” said Amir Aydn, 28, who was heading back to the city.
The Kurds have long coveted Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic city of some 1 million Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and Christians that is in the heart of a major oil-producing region. They assumed control of the city in 2014, as Daesh stormed across northern Iraq and the country’s armed forces disintegrated.
Separately, Iraqi forces said they had taken the Yazidi Kurdish town of Sinjar from Kurdish Peshmerga forces as they pressed the campaign against Kurdish-held areas outside the autonomous region.
“The Iraqi Army and Popular Mobilization Forces entered the town of Sinjar after the Peshmerga withdrew without a fight,” said Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi, Shiite-dominated paramilitary forces.
The northwestern town is infamous as the site of one of Daesh’s worst atrocities, when it killed thousands of Yazidi men and abducted thousands of women and girls as sex slaves in 2014.
Tens of thousands of civilians fled into the nearby mountains in appalling conditions, helping to trigger US intervention against the terrorists.
The Yazidis are Kurdish-speaking but follow their own faith that earned them the hatred of Daesh.
Following the exodus of 2014, many Yazidis volunteered to fight against Daesh, either in their own militias or those sponsored by the Kurds or by the government.
Al-Hashd said that Yazidi fighters in its ranks had deployed in Sinjar.
The town was taken from Daesh by Kurdish forces in 2015.
Masloum Shingali, commander of a local Yazidi militia in Sinjar, said the Peshmerga left before dawn Tuesday, allowing the Popular Mobilization Forces, to move in.
Mahma Khalil, the mayor, said the Popular Mobilization Forces, were securing Sinjar.
The Kurdish forces “left immediately, they didn’t want to fight,” Shingali said.
Iraq’s Interior Ministry said the Peshmerga also pulled out of the eastern towns of Jaloula, Khanaqin and Mandali.

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