Iraqi Security Forces staged an assault on the oil-rich city of Kirkuk on Monday morning, forcing Kurdish Peshmerga forces to withdraw from the area.
Civilians began to flee the area as the assault began. Some reports claim that the Peshmerga units withdrew instead of fighting back, though Kurdish officials reported some exchanges of fire. Government forces targeted Kirkuk's rich oil fields and a military air base. Pictures posted on social media showed massive lines of vehicles attempting to flee the attack.
The Peshmerga command referred to the operation as "a war against the Kurds." Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered the assault due to concerns that the country was in danger of "partition." Kurdish fighters seized the city from Islamic State forces three years ago after the Iraqi military failed to push back against the terrorist group.
Though the Kurds and Iraqi government are partners in the fight against ISIS, a referendum on Kurdish independence held three weeks ago fractured relations between Baghdad and Erbil after 90 percent of Kurds voted for independence from Iraq.
The internal conflict puts the U.S. in an awkward diplomatic position. American forces have supported both the Peshmerga and the Iraq military with arms and money since the conflict with ISIS began three years ago, but as the terrorist group continues to deteriorate, ethnic tensions across Iraq remain. The Kurds are distinct from the Iraqi Arabs, complete with their own language and customs. Though they have maintained a working relationship with Iraq, they have long sought their own state. Currently, Kurdistan operates semi-autonomously from Iraq.
"We call on all parties to immediately cease military action and restore calm while we continue to work with officials from the central and regional governments to reduce tensions and avoid further clashes," said the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in a statement. "ISIS remains the true enemy of Iraq, and we urge all parties to remain focused on finishing the liberation of their country from this menace."
Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S.-led task force fighting ISIS, noted none of its advisers were supporting either side. Its statement referred to the exchanges of fire as "a misunderstanding" and also urged all parties to focus on ISIS.
The situation is further complicated by Iran's influence with Iraq's Hashd al-Shabi, more commonly known as the Popular Mobilization Forces. The largely Shia Muslim PMF is directly supported by the Iranian government. The PMF were integrated into the Iraqi Security Forces several years ago, though Iranian advisers have been seen working with the units in the past. While the PMF is supposed to take orders from Baghdad, Iran has a major influence on the ground.