Iraqi forces say they have taken control of “vast areas” of Kirkuk following clashes with Kurdish Peshmerga forces who had occupied the oil-rich region.
The move was announced via Iraqi state TV early on Monday, shortly after reports of government forces advancing towards strategic locations such as airfields and airbases located to the west of the city.
According to Kurdish and Iraqi officials, artillery fire is being exchanged with government forces to the south of the city.
A Kurdish security official has denied that Iraqi forces were able to get closer to the city or take territory from the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.
The televised report noted that the orders for the military "to impose security in Kirkuk in cooperation with the population and the Peshmerga" had been given by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
The developments occurred several hours after Iraq’s central government accused Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) authorities of bringing militants from Turkey's outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) to the Kirkuk, saying it considered the move as a "declaration of war."
The Iraqi government has announced that it will impose its authority over Kirkuk and other disputed areas.
The statement came just hours before the expiry of a deadline for Kurdish Peshmerga fighters to withdraw from strategic areas in Kirkuk.
US calls for de-escalation of situation
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has called on Iraqi and Kurdish forces to "avoid escalatory actions" and revert to negotiations to defuse tensions and solve their problems.
"We oppose violence from any party, and urge against destabilizing actions that distract from the fight against Daesh and further undermine Iraq's stability," said Pentagon spokeswoman Laura Seal.
"We continue to support a unified Iraq…Despite the Kurdistan Regional Government's unfortunate decision to pursue a unilateral referendum, dialogue remains the best option to defuse ongoing tensions and longstanding issues, in accordance with the Iraqi constitution," she added.
The latest incidents come amid simmering tensions between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over a recent controversial referendum on the secession of the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region.
The plebiscite took place on September 25, sparking strong objection from Baghdad. Iraq’s neighbors and the international community also voiced concerns about the repercussions of the vote, which was only supported by Israel.
Kirkuk, with some 10 percent of Iraq’s oil reserves, has long been contested by Baghdad and Erbil.