Kurdish security forces -- concerned with the possibility of more weapons falling into the hands of Al Qaeda-inspired militants in Iraq -- have taken over an air base and posts abandoned by the country’s military in the city of Kirkuk.
Kurdish security forces known as peshmerga took over the areas in the ethnically mixed city on Thursday, Brig. Halogard Hikmat, a senior peshmerga official, told the Associated Press. But he denied reports the whole city was under peshmerga control.
"We decided to move ... because we do not want these places with the weapons inside them to fall into the hands of the insurgents," said Hikmat. Iraqi government officials could not be reached to confirm the account.
Meanwhile, Kurdish fighters from the ethnic group's autonomous enclave in the north showed signs of taking a greater role in fighting back against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) – the militant group that has vowed to march toward Baghdad after taking control of two key northern Iraq cities.
Their role is a potential point of friction because both Sunni and Shiite Arabs are wary over Kurdish claims on territory outside their enclave.
On Wednesday, a force of 20 pickup trucks carrying Islamic State militants attacked peshmerga positions near the town of Sinjar, on a highway between Mosul and the Syrian border. The two sides battled for four hours during the night in a firefight that killed nine militants and wounded four peshmerga, Hikmat said.
The ISIS captured parts of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, on Tuesday.
The takeover has forced around 320,000 Iraqis to flee into the country’s northern Kurdistan region, according to the United Nations Human Rights Council. The region is already home to 230,000 refugees who have fled the bloody conflict in neighboring Syria.
Long lines of cars and hundreds of people were spotted at a checkpoint leading to the regional capital of Erbil, the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports.
A woman who spoke to the station said she had to leave her home because ISIS fighters established a camp in front of it and demanded food.
"I was afraid, so we left, but I've been here all day and I have no food, no water. I don't know what to do,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.