The U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) downplayed clashes between Iraqi and Kurdish forces Monday, calling exchanges of fire a “misunderstanding.”
Still, the coalition encouraged both sides to “avoid escalatory actions” and to continue to focus on fighting ISIS.
“Coalition forces and advisors are not supporting the government of Iraq or Kurdistan regional government activities near Kirkuk, but are aware of reports of a limited exchange of fire during predawn hours of darkness Oct. 16,” the coalition said in a statement. “We believe the engagement this morning was a misunderstanding and not deliberate as two elements attempted to link up under limited visibility conditions.
“The coalition strongly urges all sides to avoid escalatory actions.”
Iraqi forces on Monday advanced into the disputed province of Kirkuk, which the Kurds have controlled since dispelling ISIS in 2014.
The oil-rich area has been at the heart of the dispute between the Kurdish region and Iraq’s central government, and tensions between the two have risen since last month’s nonbinding vote for Kurdish independence.
By midday Monday, Kurdish forces were withdrawing from Kirkuk after Iraqi forces seized oil fields north of the city, its airport and a military base, according to The Associated Press.
The U.S. military has trained and armed both the Iraqi and Kurdish forces in the fight against ISIS.
The United States has urged both sides to remain focused on the fight against ISIS as the terrorist group is on the brink of defeat in Iraq.
"We continue to advocate dialogue between Iraqi and Kurdish authorities. All parties must remain focused on the defeat of our common enemy, ISIS, in Iraq,” Maj. Gen. Robert White, commander of coalition ground forces, said in a statement Monday.
The dispute has raised concerns that once ISIS is defeated, sectarian divisions that allowed for the terrorist group’s emergence could flare up anew.
On Friday, Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Senate nears surprise deal on short-term debt ceiling hike Overnight Defense & National Security — Pentagon chiefs to Congress: Don't default Pentagon chiefs say debt default could risk national security MORE said the United States has been watching for that issue.
“Obviously, once ISIS is down and out we don’t want another terrorist group to rise up and also some of the old conditions or tensions now come back to the forefront,” he told reporters.
He likewise urged Iraqi and Kurdish forces to stay focused on ISIS.
“We can't turn on each other right now,” Mattis said. “We don't want this to go to a shooting situation.”