Kurdish forces surrendered the town of Sinjar in northern Iraq Tuesday, a day after Iraqi forces swept into the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Kurdish fighters, who had held Sinjar since recapturing it from Islamic State in November 2015, withdrew before dawn, local militia commander Masloum Shingali told AP. Kurdish militia “didn’t want to fight,” he said.
Sinjar’s mayor Mahma Khalil said the Popular Mobilization Forces, an Iran-backed, predominantly Shia militia, had moved in and was securing the town.
Iraqi forces infiltrated Kirkuk Monday, following weeks of tensions between Iraq’s Kurdish region and the central government in Baghdad over Kurdish independence.
The Iraqi offensive has badly damaged Kurdish ambitions for an independent state, and heightened fears of further clashes between Baghdad and the Kurdish Regional Government ― a distraction from their shared battle against Islamic State.
Washington, which arms and trains Iraqi federal forces and Kurdish peshmerga, urged both its allies “to immediately cease military action and restore calm.”
“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,” said a statement from the U.S. Embassy.
Iraqi forces encountered little resistance from the outgunned Kurdish counterparts as they took Kirkuk and its oilfields. Citing local hospitals, the New York Times reported that around 30 people were killed and dozens were wounded in the clashes.
Fearing reprisals in the ethnically-mixed city of about 1 million people, thousands of Kurds have fled the city, while crowds of ethnic Turkmen celebrated in the streets.
The lightning offensive on Kirkuk followed weeks of tensions. After the Kurds voted overwhelmingly for independence from Iraq, Baghdad responded by threatening military consequences if the vote was not annulled.
The subsequent military push, the most decisive action Baghdad has taken to thwart Kurdish independence, was aided by disunity among the Kurds.
Militias allied to the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a rival political party to the Kurdistan Democratic Party which governs Iraq’s Kurdish region, reportedly struck an agreement with Iraqi forces to let them advance unchallenged on Kirkuk.
A Peshmerga statement released by Hemin Hawrami, aide to Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, accused rival officials of “treason,” and vowed that Iraq’s central government would “pay a heavy price.”
But the loss of Kirkuk leaves the Kurds – politically divided and pushed back territorially – on the back foot.
Despite the city lying around 32 kilometers (20 miles) outside outside official Kurdish territory, Kirkuk is seen by the Kurds as part of their traditional heartland. The city, which was captured from ISIS in 2014, is also a key source of oil revenue.
U.S. Defense Department spokesman Colonel Robert Manning would not be drawn on how Washington would respond if clashes continue, saying officials were “looking at all options.”