Turkish banks could face big U.S. fines over Iran: report

Turkish banks could face big U.S. fines over Iran: report

ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Six Turkish banks face billions of dollars of fines from U.S. authorities over alleged violations of sanctions with Iran, the Haberturk newspaper reported on Saturday, citing senior banking sources.

The report could not be verified by Reuters. Two senior Turkish economy officials told Reuters that Turkey has not received any notice from the United States about such penalties, adding that U.S. regulators would normally inform the finance ministry’s financial crimes investigation board.

Turkish authorities are expected to issue a statement to issue the address the issue soon, the senior economy officials said.

The report comes as relations between Washington and Ankara have been strained by a series of diplomatic rows, prompting both countries to cut back issuing visas to each other’s citizens.

Haberturk did not name the six banks potentially facing the fines. One bank will face a penalty in excess of $5 billion, while the rest of the fines will be lower, it said.

U.S. officials will notify the banks of their penalties in the coming days and the banks are likely to be able to negotiate down the fines, Haberturk said.

U.S. authorities have hit global banks with billions of dollars in fines over violations of sanctions with Iran and other countries in recent years.

U.S. prosecutors last month charged a former Turkish economy minister and the ex-head of a state-owned bank with conspiring to violate Iran sanctions by illegally moving hundreds of millions of dollars through the U.S. financial system on Tehran’s behalf.

President Tayyip Erdogan has dismissed the charges as politically motivated, and tantamount to an attack on the Turkish Republic.

The charges stem from the case against Reza Zarrab, a wealthy Turkish-Iranian gold trader who was arrested in the United States over sanctions evasion last year. Erdogan has said U.S. authorities had “ulterior motives” in charging Zarrab, who has pleaded not guilty.

(Reporting by Orhan Coskun and Ebru Tuncay; Writing by Dirimcan Barut; Editing by David Dolan and Stephen Powell)

Spain to sack Catalan government in bid to end secessionist crisis

Spain to sack Catalan government in bid to end secessionist crisis

By Isla Binnie and Julien Toyer

MADRID (Reuters) – The Spanish government will sack Catalonia’s secessionist leadership and force the region into a new election, it decided on Saturday, unprecedented steps it said were needed to prevent the region breaking away.

The plan, which requires parliamentary approval, is Madrid’s bid to resolve the country’s worst political crisis in four decades, but it risks an angry reaction from independence supporters, who planned street protests later in the day.

Outlining the cabinet’s decision, Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said Catalonia, which accounts for a fifth of Spain’s economy, was already in worrying economic shape as a result of the regional government’s push for independence.

“We will ask the Senate, with the aim of protecting the general interest of the nation, to authorize the government … to sack the Catalan president and his government,” Rajoy told a news conference.

Spain’s upper house of parliament is scheduled to vote on the plan next Friday.

It is the first time since Spain’s return to democracy in the late 1970s that the central government has invoked the constitutional right to take control of a region.

Direct rule will give Madrid full control of the region’s finances, police and public media and curb the powers of the regional parliament after it allowed an independence referendum that Madrid declared illegal.

Rajoy said he did not intend to use the special powers for more than six months and he would call a regional election as soon as the situation was back to normal.

“Our objective is to restore the law and a normal cohabitation among citizens, which has deteriorated a lot, continue with the economic recovery, which is under threat today in Catalonia, and celebrate elections in a situation of normality,” Rajoy said.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, was due to deliver an address at 9 p.m. (1900 GMT) after meeting with his government, his office said. He was also due to join the protests in Barcelona.

Puigdemont made a symbolic declaration of independence on Oct. 10, and on Thursday he threatened to press ahead with a more formal one unless the government agreed to a dialogue.

The Catalan parliament is expected to decide on Monday whether to hold a plenary session to formally proclaim the republic of Catalonia.

Catalan media have said Puigdemont could decide to dissolve the regional parliament himself immediately after independence is proclaimed and call elections before the Spanish senate makes direct rule effective.

Under Catalan law, those elections would take place within two months.

UNSUSTAINABLE

Pro-independence parties said the move from the center-right government of the People’s Party (PP) showed the Spanish state was no longer democratic.

“The Spanish government has carried out a coup against a democratic and legal majority,” Marta Rovira, a lawmaker from Catalan government party Esquerra Republica de Catalunya, tweeted.

Anti-capitalist party CUP, which backs the pro-independence minority government in the regional assembly said: “Taken over but never defeated. Popular unity for the Republic now. Not a single step back.”

Catalan authorities said about 90 percent of those who voted in the referendum on Oct. 1 opted for independence. But only 43 percent of the electorate participated, with opponents of secession mostly staying at home.

The main opposition in Madrid, the Socialists, said they fully backed the special measures and had agreed on holding regional elections in January.

“Differences with the PP on our territorial unity? None!” said socialist leader Pedro Sanchez.

Rajoy also received the backing of King Felipe, who said at a public ceremony on Friday that “Catalonia is and will remain an essential part” of Spain.

The independence push has brought on Spain’s worst political crisis since a failed military coup in 1981 several years after the end of the Franco dictatorship. It has met with strong opposition across the rest of Spain, divided Catalonia itself, and raised the prospect of prolonged street protests

It has also led Madrid to cut growth forecasts for the euro zone’s fourth-largest economy and prompted hundreds of firms to move their headquarters from Catalonia. Rajoy on Saturday urged firms to stay in the region.

Madrid has insisted that Puigdemont has broken the law several times in pushing for independence.

“The rulers of Catalonia have respected neither the law on which our democracy is based nor the general interest,” the government said in a memorandum to the Senate. “This situation is unsustainable.”

Pro-independence groups have mustered more than 1 million people onto the streets in protest at Madrid’s refusal to negotiate a solution.

Heavy-handed police tactics to shut down the independence referendum were condemned by human rights groups, and secessionists accused Madrid of taking “political prisoners” after two senior independence campaigners were jailed on charges of sedition.

Hacking group Anonymous on Saturday joined a campaign called “Free Catalonia” and took down the website of Spain’s constitutional court.

Spain’s national security department had said on Friday it was expecting such an attack to take place, though nobody was available on Saturday to confirm it.

(Editing by Angus MacSwan and Robin Pomeroy)

German police rule out terrorism in Munich knife attack

A German police officer guards the site where earlier a man injured several people in a knife attack in Munich, Germany, October 21, 2017. REUTERS/Michael Dalder

By Ayhan Uyanik

MUNICH (Reuters) – German police ruled out a political or religious motive behind a knife attack in the city of Munich on Saturday and said a detained man suspected of injuring eight people had mental health problems.

The arrest of the suspect in his 30s brought calm back to the streets of the Bavarian capital after a tense morning. Police had asked residents to stay home until they find the attacker who had fled on a bicycle.

Munich police chief Hubertus Andrae told a news conference that eight people have been lightly injured in the attack and that the suspect was known to police from previous offences, including burglary.

“We have no indication of a terrorist, political, or religious motive,” Andrae said. “I assume it is to do with a psychological disorder of the perpetrator.”

Police had earlier said they believe the man, who attacked people at several different locations, acted alone.

His victims include a 12-year-old boy and a woman.

(Writing by Joseph Nasr; Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

Trump to release JFK files, subject to ‘further information’

Roses lie on a marker outside the home where President John F. Kennedy was born 100 years ago on May 29, 1917, in Brookline, Massachusetts, U.S., May 29, 2017. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Saturday that, subject to receipt of further information, he planned to allow the opening of long-secret files on the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy that are scheduled for release next week.

Politico magazine earlier quoted Trump administration and other U.S. government officials as saying the president would almost certainly block the release of information from some of the thousands of classified files, which the U.S. National Archives is due to make public by an Oct. 26 deadline. (http://politi.co/2yGjMtr)

“Subject to the receipt of further information, I will be allowing, as President, the long blocked and classified JFK FILES to be opened,” Trump said in a tweet.

The Nov. 22 1963 assassination cut short “Camelot,” as the 1,000 days of the Kennedy presidency became known. Kennedy was 46 when he died and remains one of the most admired U.S. presidents.

Thousands of books, articles, TV shows, movies and documentaries have been produced about the assassination and surveys have shown that a majority of Americans still distrust official evidence that points to Lee Harvey Oswald as the sole killer.

Despite serious questions about the official inquest, and theories purporting that organized crime, Cuba or a cabal of U.S. security agents was involved, conspiracy theorists have yet to produce conclusive proof that Oswald acted in consort with anyone.

Over the years, the National Archives has released most documents related to the case, but a final batch remains and only Trump has the authority to decide whether some should continue to be withheld or released in redacted form.

The Washington Post and other media have quoted officials as saying that government agencies have lobbied Trump to withhold some of the documents, arguing that some of the more recent files could expose relatively recent intelligence and law enforcement operations.

Saturday’s Washington Post said Kennedy assassination experts do not think the last batch of papers contains any major bombshells, but may shed light on the activities of Oswald while he was traveling in Mexico City in late September 1963, and courting Cuban and Soviet spies.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Nick Zieminski)

Kremlin says Putin, Erdogan discuss Syria in phone call

Kremlin says Putin, Erdogan discuss Syria in phone call

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan discussed an upcoming meeting of the Astana process on the Syrian conflict in the Kazakh capital in late October, the Kremlin said on Saturday.

During their phone conversation, Putin and Erdogan talked about joint efforts within the Astana process, including the creation of “de-escalation zones” in Syria, and further coordination towards resolving the Syria situation, the Kremlin said in a statement.

The Astana talks are brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran. In mid-September, the three countries agreed to post observers on the edge of a de-escalation zone in northern Syria’s Idlib region largely controlled by Islamist militants.

Putin and Erdogan also said the agreements reached between Russia and Turkey in Ankara in late September were being successfully implemented, particularly in trade and economic relations.

“Overall, the conversation was business-like and constructive, directed at strengthening bilateral cooperation and interaction on the regional agenda,” the Kremlin said.

The Russian-Turkish trade relationship has been affected by their dispute over supplies of Turkish tomatoes to Russia which Moscow is yet to fully restore. This dispute has been adding risks to Russian grain trade with Turkey.

Russia, once the largest market for Turkish tomato producers, said this week it will allow purchases of 50,000 tonnes of Turkish tomatoes from only four Turkish producers from Dec. 1.

The announcement came several days after Turkey, the second largest buyer of Russian wheat, said it had imposed a requirement for additional approval of Russian agriculture supplies by the Turkish authorities.

(Reporting by Polina Devitt)

Iran’s Guards flex muscle in Middle East despite Trump warning

FILE PHOTO: Members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards march during a military parade to commemorate the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war in Tehran September 22, 2007. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl/File Photo

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A week after U.S. President Donald Trump delivered a blistering speech about Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the most powerful military and economic force in the Islamic Republic has shown it has no intention of curbing its activities in the Middle East.

In defiance of other world powers, Trump chose in a speech last Friday not to certify that Tehran is complying with a pact to curb Iran’s nuclear work and singled out the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), accusing Tehran of destabilizing the region.

A senior IRGC commander said after the speech Trump was “acting crazy” and was following U.S. strategy of increasing “the shadow of war in the region”.

Iran’s Shi’ite militia proxies have made formidable military gains in recent months in Syria as well as Iraq, stretching from northern Iraq to a string of smaller cities and this week, after the Trump speech, re-captured the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

“In the short-run clearly Trump has increased the power and aggressiveness of the IRGC,” said Abbas Milani, the director of the Iranian Studies program at Stanford University.

“The IRGC can’t back down from a street fight. Their domestic and regional prestige is predicated on the fact that they fight a good fight and they don’t back down.”

The day after Trump spoke, the head of the Guards’ al Quds overseas operations, Major General Qassem Soleimani, traveled to Iraq’s Kurdistan region. He held talks about the escalating crisis between Kurdish authorities and the Iraqi government after a Kurdish independence referendum.

The niece of the late Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, Alaa Talabani, told the al Hadath TV channel that Soleimani met with members of her family on Saturday. He had come to pay respects to Jalal, a former Iraqi president and founder of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party who died this month.

Other Iraqi and Kurdish officials told Reuters Soleimani held meetings with Kurdish leaders to persuade them to retreat from Kirkuk ahead of the Iraqi army push into the city.

“I don’t deny that Mr. Qassem Soleimani gave us the advice to find a solution to Kirkuk,” she said. “He said Kirkuk should return to the (Iraqi) law and constitution and to have an agreement about Kirkuk and give up the intransigence about the referendum which was a decision not thought out.”

LIGHTNING ASSAULT

Within days, Iran’s mostly Shi’ite allies in Baghdad launched a lightning assault, pushing Kurdish fighters out of disputed territories such as Kirkuk and consequently strengthening Iran’s hand in Iraq.

Commanders of the Kurdish forces, known as the Peshmerga, have accused Iran of orchestrating the Shi’ite-led Iraqi central government’s push into areas under their control, a charge senior Iranian officials have denied.

A video posted by the Kurdish Rudaw channel online on Wednesday showed an Iraqi Shi’ite militiaman loyal to Iran hanging a picture of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in the Kirkuk governorate office.

Iran, which has a large Kurdish minority, has reason to be wary of Iraqi Kurdish independence. It fears it might encourage its own Kurds, who have also pushed for separatism.

After the independence vote in Iraqi Kurdistan on September 25, videos posted online showed hundreds of people celebrating in the streets in the Kurdish areas of Iran.

FRONT-LINE PLAYER

Regional analysts say the emergence of Iran in Iraq, Syria, Kurdistan and Lebanon, where it wields influence through its allied Shi’ite Lebanese Hezbollah militia, means Tehran has become a front-line player in the region which Washington could not afford to ignore.

“Trump’s stupidity should not distract us from America’s deceitfulness … If the U.S. tears up the (nuclear) deal, we will shred it,” said Khamenei. “Americans are angry because the Islamic Republic of Iran has managed to thwart their plots in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and other countries in the region.”

Speaking after Trump’s speech, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the Guards’ aerospace division, said: “From the start of the Islamic revolution … (presidents) have increased the shadow of war in the region …

“Dear brothers and sisters today Trump is acting crazy to gain concessions through this method.”

The ramping up of tension could put the two countries on a collision course in the Gulf where clashes have only been narrowly avoided in recent months.

Small boats from the Revolutionary Guards’ navy veered close to U.S. naval vessels in the Gulf at least twice this year, prompting the U.S. military to fire warning shots and flares.

In August, an unarmed Iranian drone came within 100 feet (31 meters) of a U.S. Navy warplane, risking a crash, according to a U.S. official.

Some recent naval showdowns between Iran and the United States took place near the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway where up to 30 percent of global oil exports pass annually.

During the presidential campaign last September, Trump vowed that any Iranian vessels that harassed the U.S. Navy in the Gulf would be “shot out of the water”.

POTENTIAL FLASHPOINT

The Guards could also target U.S. forces in Iraq and Syria through tens of thousands of loyal Shi’ite militia fighters without directly acknowledging a role in any attacks.

“The IRGC can claim ignorance of Shi’ite militia attacks against the U.S. military,” said Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who has done extensive research on the Guards.

In early October, an American soldier was killed in Iraq by an explosively formed penetrator, or EFP, a type of roadside bomb which was often used by Iran’s Shi’ite militia proxies in Iraq, according to the U.S. military.

“This is the first time that we’ve seen it used in this area,” U.S. Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, a coalition spokesman, said. Dillon said the U.S. military has not yet concluded who carried out the attack.

Dozens of American soldiers in Iraq were killed and injured by EFPs used by militia groups linked to Iran after the 2003 invasion of Iraq by U.S. forces, according to the U.S. military.

Asked about the threat posed by Shi’ite militias allied with Iran in Iraq and Syria, particularly after Trump’s speech, Dillon said: “We’re always assessing the threats no matter where they come from. During certain announcements or certain dates or when certain events happen, we make proper adjustments.”

Trump’s new plan, observers say, will also weaken a group that had made progress in curbing the Guards’ political and economic ambitions in recent years: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and the pragmatist politicians in his cabinet.

Since becoming president in 2013, Rouhani and members of his cabinet repeatedly pushed back against the Guards’ economic influence and involvement in political matters.

Now, Rouhani’s push against the Guards has been tempered because of the hardening in Trump’s approach to Tehran, regional observers said. “What this has done is that even those who were critics are now defending the Revolutionary Guards,” said Nasser Hadian-Jazy, a political science professor at Tehran University.

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh and additional reporting by Maher Chmaytelli in Erbil, editing by Nick Tattersall and Peter Millership)

Malawi arrests 140 in clampdown after ‘vampirism’ killings

LILONGWE (Reuters) – Police in Malawi said they arrested 140 suspected members of vigilante mobs that have targeted people accused of vampirism, clamping down after a wave of attacks in which at least nine have been lynched.

The mob attacks began in mid-September in four districts in southern Malawi, where belief in witchcraft is widespread.

This week they spread to Blantyre, the country’s second-biggest city, where mobs torched one person and stoned another to death on Wednesday.

“We have so far arrested 140 people we suspect are behind the mob killings in Blantyre and other districts and the investigations are still going on,” Lexon Kachama, inspector general of Malawi Police, told reporters.

Police were doing everything possible to contain the situation and ensure the violence did not spread to other cities and townships, he said.

Information minister Nicholaus Dausi told Reuters that the government will put soldiers on the streets to stem the vampire rumours that have resulted in nine deaths.

“We are deploying the army in townships and districts affected to help police calm down the situation and save lives,” Dausi said.

President Peter Mutharika has also been visiting parts of the country affected by the violence.

The United Nations and U.S. embassy have blacklisted several districts in Malawi as dangerous zones for staffers and nationals. Earlier this month the UN pulled staff out of two areas in southern Malawi.

(Reporting by Mabvuto Banda; Editing by John Stonestreet and Hugh Lawson)

Plane by plane, New York greets Puerto Ricans displaced by hurricane

Plane by plane, New York greets Puerto Ricans displaced by hurricane

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – There were only a few minutes left before baggage carousel No. 4 jolted to life at John F. Kennedy International Airport, soon to be ringed with people coming from Puerto Rico on one-way tickets they never would have bought if not for the hurricane.

Moving at a canter, Emily Pagan and three colleagues from various New York state government agencies carted their fold-up table halfway down the Terminal 5 arrivals hall, setting it up by the carousel against a pillar.

They had volunteered to help orient the latest batch of the tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans that New York officials estimate will flee from the lingering devastation wrought a month ago by Hurricane Maria.

Many are expected to stay for months – or years – and some forever, in a largely reluctant wave of migration abetted by the spare mattresses and couches of the one million Puerto Ricans who already call the New York area home.

“A lot of them are saying they came to start a new life here because they lost everything,” Pagan said on her third day of greeting arrivals from the U.S. territory, where the power grid and water supply remain in disarray.

She tried to make the makeshift help desk look nice, centering a bowl of mints and squaring off the piles of leaflets about health and job resources.

A clipboard wedged into her elbow, Pagan hurried up to anyone who looked like they were waiting for relatives from the island, flipping between English and Spanish: “Hi, I’m Emily, and I represent the state.”

Lissette Feliciano, who had driven down from Bridgeport, Connecticut, was among those grateful for a leaflet. Then bags began thudding onto the carousel and the automatic doors slid open to admit her 10-year-old nephew, sporting an Incredible Hulk T-shirt, alongside her youngest sister, Madeline Feliciano.

The nephew, Carlos, grinned as he was nuzzled by his aunt. It was their first time leaving the island. They never expected an airplane cabin would be so cold, he said, shivering.

“I’m so-so,” his mother said, looking daunted.

Many Puerto Rican families are divided between those who prefer the island’s warmth and those who cannot understand why one would not move to the mainland’s hustle, as Lissette did seven years ago. But the storm put those disagreements on hold.

“Four days, no running water,” Madeline said of their hometown, Isabela. She did not know when they could return.

“They’ll stay with me until we can find something for her,” said Lissette, who had already found a bilingual school for Carlos.

They headed out, with Madeline and Carlos added to the tally on Pagan’s clipboard.

People gravitated toward Pagan and her purple top bearing the logo of New York’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, where she normally works as a compliance officer.

Born in Puerto Rico, Pagan, 42, listened to the accounts of each new arrival that made her beautiful native island seem unfamiliar: no water, no power, no green left on the tropical trees, no sort of place where a child or grandparent could thrive.

“It’s heartbreaking,” she said between flights. But she tried to put on a welcoming face, slipping lollipops to children before moving on to the next family. She was yet to meet anyone without relatives to stay with, but younger adults seemed worried about finding jobs in a place where they had never planned to live.

Pagan cooed at the green eyes of a 7-year-old boy called Jayden with a Transformers backpack. “You speak English!” she said after the boy squirmed at the compliment. “You understand everything I say!”

Jayden’s father, Joemil Ramirez, was returning to New York City, where he was raised, for only three weeks, partly for its functional telephone network. Much of that time he expected to spend making calls trying to salvage his hurricane-ravaged restaurant in Rincon. But when he returned, he would be leaving behind Jayden, who would move in with the boy’s mother, from whom Ramirez was separated.

“There’s no place for him to be, no school,” Ramirez said. “It’s a situation I wouldn’t give to my own worst enemy.”

Genoveva Mendez, 48, watched the carousel from her wheelchair. She had been undergoing physical therapy three times a week following a stroke, but Maria halted that.

“We had to force her,” said her daughter, Jessenia Lalama. Mendez had refused the offer of a ticket to New York for weeks.

“I like the island, the island’s beautiful,” Mendez said, becoming tearful at the memory of her home before the hurricane.

When the hall emptied, a lone suitcase remained on the carousel as Pagan and her colleagues carried their table back to the corner, ready to greet the next day’s flights.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Dan Grebler)

Death toll from Egypt gun battle rises to 52 killed: sources

CAIRO (Reuters) – At least 52 Egyptian police and conscripts were killed and six more wounded in a gun battle on Friday during a raid on a suspected militant hideout in the western desert, three security sources said.

Sources had said late on Friday at least 30 police were killed. Egypt is battling an Islamist insurgency concentrated in the Sinai peninsula from two main groups, including an Islamic State affiliate, that has killed hundreds of security forces since 2013.

The interior ministry released a statement on the operation on Friday but has so far not given any details on casualties. At least 23 police officers were killed and the other victims were conscripts, the sources said.

Security sources on Friday said authorities were following a lead to a militant camp in the desert where eight suspected members of Hasm Movement were believed to be hiding. The group has claimed attacks around Cairo targeting judges and police.

A convoy of four SUVs and one interior ministry vehicle was ambushed from higher ground by militants firing rocket-propelled grenades and detonating explosive devices, one senior security source said.

Militants are mostly fighting in remote northern Sinai where the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis group pledged allegiance to Islamic State in 2014. Attacks mostly hit police and armed forces, but militants have also targeted Egypt’s Christians and tourists.

(Reporting by Ahmed Tolba; writing by Patrick Markey/Jeremy Gaunt)

Iraqi forces complete Kirkuk province takeover after clashes with Kurds

A cyclist gestures at Iraqi security forces, on a street of Kirkuk, Iraq October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Ako Rasheed - RC1433BB18F0

By Maher Chmaytelli and Raya Jalabi

BAGHDAD/ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraqi forces on Friday took control of the last district in the oil-rich province of Kirkuk still in the hands of Kurdish Peshmerga fighters following a three-hour battle, security sources said.

The district of Altun Kupri, or Perde in Kurdish, lies on the road between the city of Kirkuk – which fell to Iraqi forces on Monday – and Erbil, capital of the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq that voted in a referendum last month to secede from Iraq against Baghdad’s wishes.

A force made up of U.S-trained Iraqi Counter-Terrorism Service units, Federal Police and Iranian-backed fighters known as Popular Mobilisation began their advance on Altun Kupri at 7:30 a.m. (0430 GMT), said an Iraqi military spokesman.

Kurdish Peshmerga forces withdrew from the town, located on the Zab river, after battling the advancing Iraqi troops with machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades, Iraqi security sources said. Neither side gave information about casualties.

The Iraqi central government forces have advanced into Kirkuk province largely unopposed as most Peshmerga forces withdrew without a fight.

The government advance has transformed the balance of power in northern Iraq and is likely to scuttle the independence aspirations of the Kurds, who voted overwhelmingly on Sept. 25 to secede from Iraq and take the oil fields of Kirkuk with them.

The fighting at Altun Kupri marked only the second instance of significant violent resistance by the Kurds in Kirkuk province. Dozens were killed or wounded in the previous clash on Monday, the first night of the government advance.

The U.S. State Department said it was concerned by reports of violent clashes around Altun Kupri.

“In order to avoid any misunderstandings or further clashes, we urge the central government to calm the situation by limiting federal forces’ movements in disputed areas to only those coordinated with the Kurdistan Regional Government,” it said in a statement.

The State Department made clear that even though federal authority was reasserted over “disputed areas”, that in no way changes their status – “they remain disputed until their status is resolved in accordance with the Iraqi resolution” in what appeared to be a nod to the Kurds and their assertion that they have a stake in these territories.

Altun Kupri is the last town in Kirkuk province on the road to Erbil, lying just outside the border of the autonomous region established after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Iraqi forces are seeking to reestablish Baghdad’s authority over territory which the Kurdish forces occupied outside the official boundaries of their autonomous region, mostly seized since 2014 in the course of the war on Islamic State militants.

Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on Friday for the state to protect Kurds in northern Iraq, a rare political intervention by a figure whose words have the force of law for most of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority.

Sistani’s call, issued at the Friday prayer in the holy Shi’ite city of Kerbala by one of his representatives, came amid reports of abuses against Kurds in areas evacuated by the Kurdish Peshmerga including Kirkuk, Tuz Khormato and Khanaqin.

ACCUSATIONS

Kurdish officials said tens of thousands of Kurds fled Kirkuk and Tuz to the two main cities of the Kurdish autonomous region, Erbil and Sulaimaniya.

Iraq’s post-Saddam constitution allows the Kurds self rule in three mountainous northern provinces and guarantees them a fixed percentage of Iraq’s total oil income, an arrangement that saw them prosper while the rest of the country was at war.

Although Kirkuk is outside the autonomous region, many Kurds consider it the heart of their historic homeland and its oil to be their birthright. Its loss makes their quest for independence appear remote, since it would leave them with only about half the oil revenue they had sought to claim for themselves.

Kurdish Peshmerga moved into Kirkuk without a fight in 2014, taking over positions left by the Iraqi army as it fled in the face of Islamic State militants.

Iraqi and Kurdish forces traded accusations of using weapons that Western powers had originally given them to fight Islamic State.

“Iraqi forces use U.S. Humvees, tanks in latest offensive against Peshmerga,” tweeted Hemin Hawrami, KRG President Masud Barzani’s assistant.

“Today, Popular Mobilisation attacked us with American weaponry. What is this agreement between the Americans and the Iranians?” said Harem Shukur, a Peshmerga fighter outside Altun Kupri. “The Americans sold us to Iran,” he added, echoing widespread bitterness among Kurds who think the United States did not honor friendly ties built over several decades.

An Iraqi military spokesman accused the Peshmerga of using rockets supplied by Germany.

Germany said it hoped to resume its mission training Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq on Sunday, provided the conflict did not worsen. Berlin suspended it last week as tensions mounted.

(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli in Baghdad and Mustafa Mahmoud in Kirkuk; Eric Walsh in Washington; Editing by Andrew Heavens and James Dalgleish)