Kurdish forces seized two large oil fields near the disputed northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk this morning in the latest move in an escalating spat between the Shiite-dominated central government in Baghdad and the country's Kurdish minority.
Local peshmerga troops accompanied by a number of civilians took control of the fields before dawn and kicked out civilians working there, according to a statement released by the Iraqi Ministry of Oil today. The ministry went on to accuse the Kurds of violating the constitution, calling the move a "threat to national unity," and called for the peshmerga to withdraw or face "serious consequences."
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's relationship with the country's Kurds has been strained for years. It deteriorated still further in recent weeks when Kurdish forces moved into disputed areas in the north of the country — the push included taking singlehanded control of Kirkuk — after militants led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) seized a swathe of northern territory and routed Iraqi troops last month. Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish territories, has since said that Kurds would hold onto the disputed regions.
Maliki in turn accused the Kurds of taking advantage of the situation, saying "no one has the right to exploit the events that took place, to impose a fait accompli as has happened in the Kurdish region," during a weekly television address on July 2. "This is rejected."
Undeterred, Barzani made the first step towards independence for the region the following day by asking the Kurdish parliament to form a committee which would organize an independence referendum. The war of words escalated when Maliki said in his televised address this wednesday that the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Erbil is being used as a base by ISIS fighters. Yesterday, all cargo flights to the region's main airports were suspended.
Back at the central government in Baghdad, Kurdish politicians responded to Maliki's ISIS accusation by saying yesterday that they would boycott cabinet meetings. The most senior Kurdish official in Maliki's government, Deputy Prime Minister Roz Nouri Shawez, said "such statements are meant to hide the big security fiasco by blaming others," the AP reported. Barzani's office also weighed in with a statement saying, “[Nouri Maliki] has become hysterical and has lost his balance. He is doing everything he can to justify his failures and put the blame on others for these failures."
Iraqi lawmakers have been struggling to agree on a new prime minister, president, and parliamentary speaker after April elections and form a government to take on the insurgents. The first session dissolved after just two hours of bickering and arguments when minority Sunnis and Kurds abandoned proceedings in response to Shiite politicians' inability to name a replacement for or choose to reinstate Maliki, a divisive figure who many would like to see step down. The boycott and ongoing disagreement make a national unity government look less likely than ever, despite pressure from the US, the United Nations, and even Iraq's top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
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