Iraqi forces have claimed control of all of Kirkuk province after intense fighting against Kurdish Peshmerga forces.
The army says it captured the last town, Altun Kupri, near Erbil, with the help of Shia paramilitaries early on Saturday after a three-hour battle.
Peshmerga were sending reinforcements to fight the army and their allied militias on the front line north of Kirkuk, while Iraqi forces were trying to push the Peshmerga further towards Erbil, the Kurdish regional capital.
The fighting continued around Altun Kupri, about 40km northwest of Kirkuk, on the Erbil-Kirkuk road.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi‘s ordered the army not to enter Erbil’s city limits, saying they will protect civilians and their property, while respecting what he called the 2003 perimeters of the disputed area.
The Kurds took up new positions three days after they pulled out of Kirkuk following a dramatic push by the government army, aided by Hashd al-Shaabi, or Shia militias.
Kurdish leaders estimated about 100,000 people fled the area since the operation began.
Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker, reporting from near Kirkuk, said a new front line opened early on Friday after Iraqi forces and Hashd al-Shaabi moved towards Peshmerga postions in Altun Kupri.
“Just a few kilometres behind the front line, we’re seeing a heavy presence of ambulances waiting to take the injured Peshmergas back to hospitals in Erbil. We’ve seen quite a few injured already and also heavy military back-up moving towards that front line,” Dekker said.
“There were very similar scenes just a year ago, as the Peshmerga, Iraqi government forces and Shia militias all moved against a common enemy – ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, also known as ISIS). But now, their guns are turned on each other.”
‘They turned their backs on us’
Ibrahim Mirza, a Peshmerga soldier, said there were casualties among the Kurdish forces.
“Yes, they are attacking in Altun Kupri and there is nothing we can do about it, honestly. I’m urging the coalition forces to come and help us. It hit the Peshmerga. No doubt, we have martyrs there.”
Many Peshmerga said felt betrayed by the Iraqi government in Baghdad, some fellow Kurds, and the international community.
Speaking to Al Jazeera from Kirkuk, Nazm Harki, the commander of the 10th division Peshmerga, said: “In reality, when we used to fight ISIL everyone praised the Peshmerga – ‘they are brave they are fighting for the world’. But now they are attacking us.
“As I see it, everyone is turning their backs on us,” the commander said.
Last month’s referendum on secession was seen as the final straw for the Iraqi government and neighbouring countries that oppose Kurdish independence.
Abadi said Kurdish hopes for an independent state were now “a thing of the past”.
Since the central government started its operation in the disputed areas, its forces have captured most territory without clashes from the withdrawing Peshmerga.