BAGHDAD/IRBIL: Kurdish ministers boycotted Iraq’s caretaker Cabinet and authorities in Baghdad halted cargo flights to two Kurdish cities Thursday in an escalating feud between the Kurds and the Shiite-led central government.
The dispute, linked to the Islamist insurgency raging in several provinces of Iraq, is likely to complicate efforts to reach agreement on a new government in Baghdad to help tackle the violence.
The four Kurdish ministers withdrew from Cabinet meetings to protest Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s “provocative” branding of their provincial capital Irbil a haven for the Sunni militants who have seized much of northern and western Iraq.
A senior Kurdish official said the ministers would continue running their ministries and “did not pull out from the government.” They did not mention a timeline for their boycott or terms for their return, but called for an inclusive national government.
In their absence, the Cabinet’s first agenda item Thursday was to instruct the Foreign Ministry, headed by Kurdish minister Hoshyar Zebari, to summon home diplomats reported to have demonstrated in London for Kurdish secession.
As the Cabinet met, the head of Iraq’s civil aviation authority, Nasser Bandar, said cargo flights to the Kurdish cities of Irbil and Sulaimaniya had been suspended.
He suggested the decision, which does not affect passenger flights, was linked to Maliki’s accusation that Irbil had become a base for Islamist militants.
“There are sometimes certain procedures that should be taken to prevent things reaching the hands of the terrorists, so we have decided to stop cargoes going to Sulaimaniya or Irbil until further notice,” Bandar told Reuters.
With the Islamist-led insurgency consuming Iraq’s Sunni provinces, the United States and other countries have called for politicians in Baghdad to set up a more inclusive government following a parliamentary election in April.
Sunni Arab and Kurdish politicians are demanding that Maliki leave office, saying he has marginalized them during his eight years in power, but he shows no sign of agreeing to step aside.
Relations between Baghdad and the Kurds hit a low Wednesday when Maliki accused them of allowing Irbil to be used as a center for militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) and other insurgents, who include former members of the banned Baath Party and ex-army personnel.
Responding to what he called Maliki’s “null and void” accusations, a spokesman for Kurdish regional government head Massoud Barzani said Maliki “has been afflicted by a true hysteria and lost his balance as he tries as hard as he can to justify his errors and failure and make others responsible for it.”
The spokesman said Irbil “is a refuge now for all those fleeing his dictatorship” and called for Maliki to apologize to the Iraqi people for destroying the country.
“The person who destroyed it cannot save it from crises,” he added.
Many Sunnis who fled the northern city of Mosul during the militants’ offensive have ended up in Iraqi Kurdistan, with leading Sunni political figures hated by Maliki now frequenting Irbil.
The army and Shiite militias have fought insurgents north of Baghdad for nearly a month, vowing to claw back ground they lost in the space of a few days in June.
Maliki’s military spokesman, Lt. Gen. Qassim Atta, said scores of “terrorists” had been killed in the last 24 hours, including 46 in the western province of Anbar and 39 in Diyala, east of Baghdad.
But the insurgents broke into a military base in Diyala province, a security source and a local official said.
They said militants fought their way into the base on the edge of the town of Muqdadiya, 80 km northeast of the capital. The northern side of the town was already under their control before the clashes.
The security source said that the insurgents included hundreds of non-Iraqi Arab fighters, heavily armed and some riding in tanks. Negotiations were underway involving local tribal sheikhs for a truce, the source said.A local official confirmed the militants had breached the site, although he said they would be beaten back. “They were able to control part of the base but we will retake it from them,” he said, requesting that he not be identified.
A military spokesman was not immediately available to comment.
In Salahuddin province north of Baghdad, 35 Sunni farmers have been abducted in the last two days as they brought their produce for sale in the town of Dujail, a cousin of one of the captured men and two local officials said. The relative said he saw gunmen take away his cousin as he sat in his car nearby.
Militia officials and fighters backing government forces in Salahuddin province and around Baghdad have told Reuters they had been detaining Sunnis on terrorism charges. Families of the missing say their relatives have disappeared without a trace.