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Iraqi security forces have launched a “major operation” in the Kurdish-held region of Kirkuk, advancing towards oil fields and a strategic military base, according to Kurdish and Iraqi officials.

The army captured several positions south of Kirkuk, including the North Gas Company station, a nearby processing plant and the industrial district south of the city, an Iraqi military statement said on Monday.

“Forces are continuing to advance,” it said.

An Iraqi Kurdish commander said the fighting with Kurdish forces caused “lots of casualties”.

Bahzad Ahmed said the Iraqi troops have “burnt lots of houses and killed many people” in Toz Khormato and Daquq, south of the disputed city.

The objective of the push early on Monday is to take control of the K1 airbase, west of Kirkuk, Lieutenant Colonel Salah el-Kinani, of the Iraqi army’s 9th armoured division, told Reuters news agency.

Multi-pronged assault

“They attacked Peshmerga Forces from two fronts in the Taza-Kirkuk intersection and Maryam Bag bridge, both south of Kirkuk, using US military equipment, including Abrams tanks and Humvees,” the Kurdistan Region Security Council (KRSC) said in a statement.

“Significant forces have also been deployed to Maktab Khalid intersection in southwest Kirkuk as part of the operation,” the statement added.

The Kurdish forces said they destroyed at least five Humvees used by the Iraqi army.

“Peshmerga will continue to defend Kurdistan, its people and interests. This was an unprovoked attack following days of Iraqi military deployments to Kurdistan’s borders,” the KRSC statement said.

Hemin Hawrami, senior assistant to Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani, also said on Twitter that Peshmerga forces had been ordered “not to initiate any war, but if any advancing militia starts shooting”, then they had the “green light to use every power” to respond.

Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting from Erbil, said Kurdish forces in and around Kirkuk “have vowed to defend it to the last man”. He added that the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk has reportedly called residents to arms, “saying anybody with a weapon should take it up and defend the city”.

Meanwhile, Iraqi state TV said that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi gave orders to the security forces “to impose security in Kirkuk in cooperation with the population and the Peshmerga”.

The Iraqi army said the operation is being spearheaded by the 9th armoured division, the federal police and counterterrorism units, Stratford reported.

“They are saying that thousands of Shia militias are very much in a supportive role,” he said.

The launch of the operation followed a tense standoff between the two sides amid an escalating row in the wake of a controversial September 25 referendum on Kurdish secession.

“It seems as if all diplomatic efforts have failed,” said Stratford, calling the push a “very worrying” development.

“Despite repeated denials by the Iraqi army that they were going to move on into the city and retake these oil fields, it seems very much as if that is happening now.”

Rising tensions

Kurdish Peshmerga forces took control of oil-rich Kirkuk after the Iraqi army fled a major offensive by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) armed group in 2014.

Since then, there has not been an agreement between the KRG and the federal government in Baghdad about who should control the area – and also benefit from its vast oil wealth.