The Kurdish Peshmerga forces say that the takeover of Kirkuk is “a flagrant declaration of war” against the Kurds and warned that the Iraqi prime minister would pay a “heavy price” for triggering the conflict.

The “attack” on Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk by Iraqi troops is “a flagrant declaration of war against the nation of Kurdistan,” the Peshmerga General Command said in a statement, as cited by Rudaw.

The Peshmerga described Baghdad’s move as “retaliation against the right of the people to vote on their fate,” referring to last month’s referendum on Kurdistan’s independence, in which 92.7 percent voted to secede from Iraq.

The Monday developments reveal a split in Kurdish factions, as some of the militias were reported to leave Kirkuk without a fight amid reports of clashes between the Iraqi Army and the Peshmerga.

In a statement, the Peshmerga accused a faction from one of the two main Iraqi Kurdish political parties, the ruling Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), of “plotting” against the Kurds and committing “a great and historic treason.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi earlier said the operation was aimed at protecting the unity of Iraq following Kurdistan’s independence vote.

“It is my constitutional duty to work for the benefit of the citizens and to protect our national unity that came under threat of fragmentation as a result of the referendum that was organized by the Kurdish region,” al-Abadi said in a statement.

The Prime Minister added that the vote was held in violation of the constitution and said that the Kurds “chose their personal interests over Iraq’s interests.”

Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani ordered Peshmerga forces to not attack the Iraqi military first, but gave a “green light to use every power” to fight against the advancing forces, according to Hemin Hawrami, a senior assistant to Barzani.

The US-led anti-Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) coalition claimed that the maneuvers “of military vehicles and personnel” in the vicinity of Kirkuk “so far have been coordinated movements, not attacks,” while the clashes between Peshmerga and Iraqi government forces were a mere “misunderstanding.”

“Coalition forces and advisers are not supporting 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 October 16. 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 said in a statement.

RT