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Iraq forces in full control of Kirkuk province

شعار Al Jazeera Al Jazeera 21/10/2017
Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) celebrated on the outskirts of Kirkuk [Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters] © Provided by Al Jazeera Shia Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) celebrated on the outskirts of Kirkuk [Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters]

Iraqi forces have claimed control of the whole 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 militias early on Saturday after a three-hour battle.

Peshmerga were sending reinforcements to fight the army and their allied militias on the frontline 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.

READ MORE: How a shocking reversal of fortunes unfolded in Kirkuk

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-Shabi, 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 frontline opened early on Friday after Iraqi forces and Hashd al-Shabi moved towards Peshmerga postions in Altun Kupri.

"Just a few kilometres behind the frontline, 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 frontline," 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 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.

The Peshmerga gained more territory since 2014 as it pushed ISIL out of many areas the Iraqi army used to control.

Last month's referendum on secession was seen as the final straw for the Iraq government and neighbouring countries that oppose Kurdish secession.

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