Iraqi Kurd Chief Asks to Set Date on Independence Vote

Jul 03, 2014 8:01 am ET

(Updates with report of Saudi troop movement, Saudi response in ninth paragraph. (See EXTRA <GO> for more on the turmoil in Iraq.)

July 3 (Bloomberg) -- Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani asked the parliament of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region to set a date for a referendum on independence, a lawmaker said.

Barzani also said disputed areas occupied by Kurdish armed forces last month, which include Iraq’s largest northern oil field, “will not go back to Baghdad’s control,” legislator Abdullah Jasim Rikani added, citing a speech Barzani made today.

The Kurds have been emboldened to push for independence by a Sunni insurgency that has frayed the central government’s authority. Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rejected the Kurdish independence push yesterday, saying, “We don’t have anything called self-determination in our constitution.”

Maliki also demanded the Kurds give up the Kirkuk oil hub, which would make an independent Kurdish state more financially self-sufficient.

“Nobody has the right to take advantage of the current events to impose facts on the ground,” he said. The oil field at Kirkuk “must be returned,” he said.

As al-Qaeda-inspired rebels routed government forces, the Kurds’ Peshmerga force extended its control beyond the semi- autonomous Kurdish region in the north to disputed areas including Kirkuk.

The Sunni group now known as Islamic State has brought Iraq, OPEC’s second-biggest oil producer, to the brink of civil war again after seizing the urban centers of Mosul and Tikrit and other chunks of northern Iraq last month.

More Inclusive

Maliki is now under pressure from domestic opponents to step aside to give the Sunni minority a greater say in government in a bid to undercut the support the insurgents have from some within the community.

The insurgents’ progress has rattled the region, and Saudi Arabia has deployed 30,000 troops to the border with Iraq, Reuters reported, citing Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya television. The Saudi Interior Ministry said the country’s border with Iraq is secure. “We haven’t experienced or noticed any abnormal situation” along the border area, Major General Mansour al- Turki, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said in a text message responding to questions.

Loyalty Oath

The Islamic State, which is also fighting in Syria to topple President Bashar al-Assad, earlier this week declared an Islamic caliphate in areas of Iraq and Syria it controls. Iraq’s Al-Mada Press, citing tribal chiefs, reported that the group has threatened to kill residents of the town of Hawijah, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of Kirkuk, and at least one other town if they don’t pledge allegiance to Islamic State.

The unidentified tribal chiefs told the website that people were fleeing to Kurdish-controlled areas, including Kirkuk.

The activist Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on its website that radical groups in rural Deir Ezzor province in eastern Syria declared allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State.

--With assistance from Nayla Razzouk in Dubai, Mahmoud Habboush in Abu Dhabi and Glen Carey in Riyadh.