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Oct 20, 2:46 PM EDT

Iraqi forces seize disputed town after clashes with Kurds


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AP Photo/Khalid Mohammed

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ALTUN KUPRI, Iraq (AP) -- Iraqi troops seized a town from Kurdish forces after a brief but intense firefight on Friday, capping a dramatic week of maneuvers that saw the Kurds hand over territory across northern Iraq.

By evening, the Iraqi forces were in full control of the town of Altun Kupri though Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga, were still shelling the town.

Altun Kupri is the latest town to be retaken by federal authorities from Kurdish control after Baghdad made clear this week that it was planning to roll back Kurdish forces' gains during their joint war against the Islamic State group and revert the border lines to the 2014 map of Iraq.

Kurdish authorities appeared intent on making the Altun Kupri their symbolic last stand against the more powerful Iraqi army, after the peshmerga withdrew from other so-called disputed areas peacefully earlier in the week.

"The Kurdistan Peshmerga Forces have resisted heroically in this confrontation and have recorded a great honor," the Kurdish general command said in a statement released around noon.

A commander of the Iranian-backed Shiite militia known as the Popular Mobilization Forces, which is fighting alongside the government troops, said there were no orders to advance beyond Altun Kupri and enter the country's autonomous Kurdish region.

Ercuman Turkmen, the PMF commander, said from inside the town that his forces were being targeted by sniper fire. He spoke to The Associated Press by phone.

The fight for Altun Kupri was the first instance of sustained clashes and artillery fire since the Iraqi force on Monday took back the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

At the town hospital, an AP reporter counted six civilians killed and 15 wounded. It was unclear how they sustained their wounds, or if there were other casualties.

The town, with a population of about 9,000, was mostly empty as many of the residents have fled the fighting.

A resident said he had left a day previously, anticipating the clashes, but had to return Friday to rescue his brother, who was stuck without a vehicle.

"I saw homes were hit by shelling," said Mohammed Sadreddine, an employee for the local water authority. He found shelter in Kirkuk.

The boundaries of the country's autonomous Kurdish region have long been a source of conflict between Baghdad and Irbil, the Kurdish regional capital, and the changes this week were the most dramatic to occur since 2014, when the peshmerga took over positions abandoned by Iraqi forces in the face of advancing IS militants.

The province of Kirkuk is home to Iraq's second- greatest reserves of oil and its capital, also called Kirkuk, is a multi-ethnic city that is home to 1.2 million Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen.

Baghdad said Kurdish authorities had no right to hold on to the city or its province, which includes Altun Kupri, and which falls outside the Kurdish region. The central government also said the peshmerga were caretakers of Iraqi territory during the war on IS and now had to return those areas to federal authority.

Altun Kupri is the last town on the federal side of the border on the road between Kirkuk and Irbil.

Last month's Kurdish referendum for independence has precipitated the crisis. The vote was not meant to be binding, but Baghdad has rejected it, along with Iran, Turkey, the United States and others.

With the loss of Kirkuk, the Kurdish regional government has lost an important stream of oil revenues, dealing a serious blow to aspirations for independence.

Earlier on Friday, Iraqi forces opened their attack for Altun Kupri, 40 kilometers (25 miles) northwest of Kirkuk, with shelling of peshmerga positions north and south of the town.

The peshmerga and irregular Kuridsh forces returned fire with rockets, heavy machine guns, and their own artillery.

By mid-day, Iraq's Defense Ministry said anti-terrorism forces, the federal police and the Popular Mobilization Forces had taken the town.

Kurdish authorities sent reinforcements to the front lines. AP saw a convoy of dozens of armored vehicles arriving at the Kurdish side, and fighters waiting in the town of Kustepe, on the Kurdish side of the border.

Thick black smoke rose from a checkpoint north of Altun Kupri after it was hit by a shell, and ambulances rushed from the front lines into Kurdish areas.

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Issa reported from Irbil, Iraq. Associated Press writers Balint Szlanko in Irbil, Iraq, and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.

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