Kirkuk residents anxious as Iraq forces, Kurds mobilise

Iraqi government denies operation claims to Kirkuk

They join tens of thousands of Kurdish peshmerga soldiers already stationed in and around Kirkuk, Rasul said.

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 area around al-Qaim, near the Syrian border, is the last part of Iraq still under the control of IS, which overran a third of the country in 2014 but has been driven back by a series of Iraqi military offensives with US support. USA 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.

Tensions in Kirkuk have been running high ever since the governor, Najm Eddine Karim, made a decision to let a referendum on Kurdish independence take place across the province, also called Kirkuk.

Anadolu Agency reported that a Pasmarge commander said they would respond to any possible intervention.

"We withdrew to our lines in the area around Kirkuk and we will defend the city in the event of an attack", he told a news conference.

But he warned: "If the Iraqi army advances, we will fight".

Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Thursday he would not order the military to fight against the Kurds. "Intelligence shows intentions to take over nearby oil fields, airport and military base", it said in a statement.

The Iraqi central government has taken punitive measures over the independence vote, imposing sanctions on Kurdish banks and banning global flights into the Kurdish region. At the time, peshmerga fighters were among the only groups to stand their ground against and eventually repel the IS militants. The area around al-Qaim, near the Syrian border, is the last part of Iraq still under IS control.

The alert came after the Kurdish authorities accused the Iraqi government of massing forces in readiness for an offensive to seize Kurdish-held oilfields around Kirkuk, as tensions soar after a vote for independence on September 25. "Some Kurds describe Kirkuk as their Jerusalem, and they are saying that they are not going to give up this city". This stopped the region's oil fields from falling under jihadi control.

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