U.S. officials urged Iraqi and Kurdish forces “to avoid additional escalatory actions” following reports of artillery clashes after Iraqi government troops moved in a "major operation" against Kurdish positions near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
The Pentagon late on October 15 said that “all actors” in the region should focus on the common threat of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group and avoid raising tensions among the people of Iraq.
The U.S. military added that it continues to support a “unified Iraq” and that dialogue is the best option to defuse tensions between the federal government in Baghdad and leaders of the Kurdish autonomous region in northern Iraq.
"We oppose violence from any party and urge against destabilizing actions that distract from the fight against [Islamic State] and further undermine Iraq's stability," Pentagon spokeswoman Laura Seal said.
The U.S. comments follow an unconfirmed report by the AFP news agency that Iraqi and Kurdish forces exchanged artillery fire south of the city of Kirkuk, which is claimed by both Baghdad and Kurdish leaders. Kurdish news portal Rudaw also reported clashes.
The U.S. State Department later said it was “very concerned” about the reports of a “confrontation” and that it was engaged with all parties.
The reports of possible clashes between the two U.S. allies come three weeks after Kurdish officials held an independence referendum in their autonomous region and surrounding areas -- a vote blasted by Baghdad as illegal.
Kurdish officials said residents voted overwhelming for independence, and Kurdish Peshmerga forces have looked to solidify their positions outside official Kurdish territory, including in and around the oil-rich city and province of Kirkuk.
The United States, other Western powers, and the United Nations opposed the referendum, saying it would lead to instability and hamper the fight against Islamic State (IS) militants.
Turkey and Iran, which have significant Kurdish minority populations, also opposed the referendum.
Iraqi and Kurdish officials reported just after midnight on October 16 that Iraqi forces had begun moving toward oil fields and an air base held by Peshmerga fighters around Kirkuk.
Iraqi Army Lieutenant Colonel Salah el-Kinani told the Reuters news agency that the military's objective was to take control of the K1 air base, west of Kirkuk.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi gave orders to security forces "to impose security in Kirkuk in cooperation with the population and the Peshmerga."
Iraqi state Al-Iraqiya TV subsequently reported that Iraqi government troops, antiterrorist units, and federal police had taken control of
“vast” areas around Kirkuk, although it reported no shots had been fired.
A local Kurdish police commander said early on October 16 that Kurdish forces remained in control of the province’s oil wells.
With reporting by Reuters, dpa, and AFP