Iraqi Kurdistan's Barzani presses for independence at parliament
Massud Barzani, the president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, asked its parliament on Thursday to start organising a referendum on the long-held dream of independence.
Parliament should make "preparations to begin to organise a referendum on the right of self-determination," Barzani said, according to a recording obtained by AFP of remarks he made in a closed session.
"It will strengthen our position and will be a powerful weapon in our hands," the Kurdish leader added.
The autonomous Kurdistan region has long been at odds with Iraq's federal government over numerous issues, especially what Kurdish politicians say are delayed and insufficient budget payments to the region this year.
But the issue is significantly complicated by Kurdish forces having taken control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk after federal government troops withdrew in the face of a Sunni militant offensive that began on 9 June.
Kirkuk lies at the centre of a swathe of territory that Kurdish officials want to incorporate into their three-province autonomous region, over Baghdad's strong objections.
Article 140 of Iraq's constitution was supposed to pave the way for a vote on whether the disputed areas would be folded into Kurdistan, but was never implemented due to political bickering.
Barzani now says the issue is resolved, and told Kurdish lawmakers that "nothing is left but for the residents of these regions to decide on self-determination."
Even if the Kurds vote for independence, Baghdad is all but certain to oppose that territory being kept by the region.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki rejected Kurdish assertions that their Peshmerga forces will remain in the disputed areas.
"And for those who say they will return to these regions, I say they are mistaken, because the Peshmerga will not withdraw from them under any circumstances," Barzani said.
The territorial dispute is one of several between Kurdish authorities in Arbil and the central government, along with rows over Kurdistan's claims it has the right to independently export oil and to sign contracts with foreign firms without Baghdad's approval.
In Iraq, Kurdish rebels battled the Baghdad government for decades and suffered from often-brutal repression.
Since 1991, however, the Kurds have largely run their own affairs, and their autonomous region now passes its own laws, has its own security forces and runs its own visa and foreign investment regimes.
Even before the recent militant offensive that has overrun parts of five provinces, much of the Arab-dominated parts of Iraq suffered from near-daily attacks, whereas residents of Kurdistan enjoyed relative safety and stability.