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Kurdish forces have withdrawn from the edges of a disputed region in northern Iraq, a commander said Friday, amid tensions with Iraq’s central government over the administration of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Lt. Gen Wasta Rasul said Kurdish forces known as the peshmerga evacuated positions southwest of city, while an officer in the Iraqi Army’s 9th Armored Division said federal forces had moved into positions left by the Kurdish forces in the same area, near the village of Bashir. The army officer spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Iraqi federal forces shared photos of themselves standing in front of barriers painted with the Kurdish flag on social media. They said the photos were taken “inside Kirkuk,” which is also the name of the surrounding province.
Iraq’s military command rushed to issue a statement denying media reports it had commenced operations to retake the city.
Kurdish officials say they have been alarmed by military movements outside Kirkuk. Kurdish Vice President Kosrat Rasul said he ordered reinforcements to the city Thursday night, according to the Kurdish Rudaw news.
The Peshmerga took control of Kirkuk when Iraqi defenses crumbled in the face of the advancing Islamic State group in 2014. Baghdad is demanding the Kurds return the city, which falls outside the autonomous Kurdish zone, to federal authority.
The dispute has escalated since the Kurds voted for independence in a non-binding referendum last month.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Thursday he would not order the military to fight against the Kurds.
Iraqi and Peshmerga forces have been operating in close proximity in northern Iraq in the U.S.-backed war on IS. U.S. coalition spokesman Ryan Dillon told The Associated Press that military movements in the region were in line with recent operations to clear the jihadists from Hawija, a town 60 kilometers (40 miles) west of Kirkuk.