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By nightfall the likelihood of an imminent battle for the ethnically diverse city had dissipated, with political leaders on both sides trying to calm nerves. Peshmerga units, loyal to the PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] — one of two rival power bases in Iraqi Kurdistan, had earlier withdrawn from three districts to the south, allowing the Iraqi army to move in. Shia forces supporting them made a series of threats to storm the city as soon as early as Friday night.
The Iraqi push has captured 72 square kilometres. Though couched as necessary to take up defensive positions further north, the PUK withdrawal highlighted the complex geopolitics surrounding the aftermath of the referendum, which was bitterly opposed by Iran , Baghdad and Turkey and has since led to a blockade of the region by all three powers.
Concerns remained high in Erbil that Peshmerga units from the PUK — which is supported by Iran, and whose troops are heavily deployed south of Kirkuk — may make more withdrawals, allowing Iraqi forces to advance further. It would, however, satisfy Iran, which is allied to the PUK. Iranian general Qasem Suleimani, one of the most powerful figures in Iraq, had told Kurdish leaders ahead of the poll that he would not stop Shia forces from the Popular Mobilisation Front from attacking Kirkuk if the ballot went ahead.
Baghdad had not accepted the Kurdish claim on the city, which is comprised of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, and had been bitterly opposed to Kurdish officials selling oil from the Kirkuk fields through a pipeline to Turkey. Washington had downplayed Iraqi troop movements since Kurdish leaders first sounded the alarm early on Thursday.
It is thought that the US believes a direct acknowledgment of the Iraqi troop buildup would compel it to intervene, something its military leaders are deeply reluctant to do. Kurdish security officers say they are aware of specific plans to seize districts inside Kirkuk, and that the operation is being directed from near the town of Hawija, where the last remnants of Isis in Iraq have all but been defeated by the national military and Shia forces.