The Iraqi army on Friday denied reports it had launched fresh operations south of Kirkuk with the aim of capturing Peshmerga-held areas in the province’s north.
“We deny reports circulated by media outlets about the launch of military operations south of Kirkuk,” the army’s Joint Operations Command said in a statement broadcast on state television.
“Our forces are still conducting mop-up and search operations in recently liberated areas,” it added, referring to Kirkuk’s southwestern Hawija district, which the army retook from Daesh earlier this month.
The Operations Command went on to accuse certain media outlets of “attempting to confuse the public”, urging them to “show greater caution and to rely only on information from official sources”.
Some local and international news outlets had earlier reported that the Iraqi army had launched fresh operations in southern Kirkuk aimed at capturing areas currently held by forces loyal to the Erbil-based Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).
Tension has steadily mounted between Baghdad and Erbil since Sept. 25, when Iraqis in KRG-controlled areas -- and in a handful of disputed areas -- voted on whether or not to declare political independence.
According to poll results announced by the KRG, almost 93 percent of those who cast ballots voted in favor of independence.
Peshmerga forces loyal to the KRG currently dominate areas disputed between Baghdad and Erbil (including Kirkuk), which they overran following Daesh's invasion of the country in mid-2014.
A top aide to KRG President Masoud Barzani recently asserted that the Hashd al-Shaabi -- a Shia force that fights alongside the Iraqi army -- was planning to attack oil wells in Kirkuk.
Early Friday, Hemin Hawrami tweeted that Hashd al-Shaabi fighters were preparing to “attack oil wells and areas held by Peshmerga forces”.
Last month’s illegitimate poll on regional independence had faced strong opposition from most regional and international actors (including the U.S., Turkey, and Iran), who warned that the vote would distract from Iraq’s fight against terrorism and further destabilize the region.
In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, Baghdad banned international flights from entering KRG-controlled areas and closed all foreign diplomatic missions based in the Kurdish region.
Reporting by Ibrahim