Iraqi government forces captured the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk on Monday, responding to a Kurdish vote on independence with a bold lightning strike that transforms the balance of power in the country.
A convoy of armoured vehicles from Iraq's elite US-trained Counter-Terrorism Force seized the provincial government headquarters in the centre of Kirkuk on Monday afternoon, residents said, less than a day after the operation began.
A dozen armoured vehicles arrived at the building and took up positions nearby alongside local police, residents said. They pulled down the Kurdish flag and left the Iraqi flag flying.
Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi ordered that the Iraqi flag be hoisted over Kirkuk and other disputed areas claimed by both the central government and the Kurds, who defied Baghdad to hold a vote for independence on September 25.
Baghdad described the advance as largely unopposed, and called on the Peshmerga to cooperate in keeping the peace. But the Peshmerga said Baghdad would be made to pay "a heavy price" for triggering "war on the Kurdistan people".
Washington called for calm on both sides, seeking to avert an all-out conflict between Baghdad and the Kurds that would open a whole new front in Iraq's 14-year civil war and potentially draw in regional powers such as Turkey and Iran.
A resident inside Kirkuk said members of the ethnic Turkmen community in the city of 1 million people were celebrating, driving in convoys with Iraqi flags and firing shots in the air. Residents feared this could lead to clashes with Kurds.
The overnight advance was the most decisive step Baghdad has taken yet to crush the independence bid of the Kurds, who have governed an autonomous part of Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and voted on September 25 to secede.
Kirkuk, one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse cities in Iraq, is located just outside the autonomous Kurdish zone. Kurds consider it the heart of their homeland and say it was cleansed of Kurds and settled with Arabs under Saddam to secure control of the oil that was the source of Iraq's wealth.
Prime Minister Haidar Abadi ordered security forces "to impose security in Kirkuk in cooperation with the population of the city and the Peshmerga.”
State TV said Iraqi forces had also entered Tuz Khurmato, a flashpoint town where there had been clashes between Kurds and mainly Shia Muslims of Turkmen ethnicity.
The Kurdish regional government did not initially confirm the Iraqi advances, but Rudaw, a major Kurdish TV station, reported that Peshmerga had left positions south of Kirkuk.
The "government of Abadi bears the main responsibility for triggering war on the Kurdistan people, and will be made to pay a heavy price", the Peshmerga command said in a statement, cited by Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani's assistant Hemin Hawrami.
Washington works closely with both the federal forces and the Kurdish Peshmerga to fight against Islamic State.
"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 and further clashes," the US embassy said.