BAGHDAD: Kurdish security forces took over two major oil fields outside the disputed northern city of Kirkuk before dawn Friday and said they would use some of the production for domestic purposes, escalating a dispute the central government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The takeover of the Bai Hassan and Kirkuk oil fields were the latest land grabs by Kurds, who have responded to the Sunni militant insurgency that has overrun large parts of Iraq by seizing territory of their own, effectively expanding the Kurdish autonomous zone in the north. Those moves have infuriated al-Maliki's government while stoking independence sentiment among the Kurds.
Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga pushed into the city of Kirkuk, a major hub for the oil industry in the north, and the surrounding area weeks ago in the early days of the Sunni militant blitz. But until now they had not moved into the oil fields in the area. On Friday, however, the fighters took over the Bai Hassan and Kirkuk fields and expelled local workers, the Oil Ministry in Baghdad said.
Oil Ministry spokesman Assem Jihad denounced the move as "a violation to the constitution" and warned that it poses "a threat to national unity."
The Kurdish Regional Government said its forces moved to secure the fields after learning of what it said were orders by officials in the Oil Ministry to sabotage a pipeline linking oil facilities in the area. It said the fields were now secure and production would continue, and that staff can return but will operate under Kurdish management.
Production from the fields will be used to fill the shortage of refined products in the domestic market, it said, in a reference to a fuel crunch in the Kurdish region. It also said the Kurdish Regional Government will claim its "constitutional share" of the revenues from the fields to compensate for Baghdad's cutting off the 17 percent of the state budget - some $20 billion in this year's projected budget - that is supposed to be given to the Kurdish region.
The central government withheld the funds after the Kurds began moving oil from fields inside the autonomous zone to Turkey independently against Baghdad's wishes.
The Kurds have said their earlier moves into disputed lands were intended to protect the areas from Sunni militants after the collapse of the Iraqi military in the face of the insurgency the past month. But the territory they seized has large Kurdish communities and has long been claimed by the autonomy zone.
In past weeks, the president of the Kurdish zone has said the areas won't be returned - including the highly disputed, flashpoint city of Kirkuk - and he called for Kurdish lawmakers to prepare to hold an independence referendum in the area, a move strongly opposed by Baghdad and the United States. Sunni Arabs and ethnic Turkmens who have strong communities in Kirkuk and also claim the city as theirs have warned of a backlash if Kurds try to monopolize the oil in the region.
The Kurds and Baghdad have feuded for years over a host of issues, chief among them rights to oil resources in the north and disputed territory. Yet, they have also found room for compromise, and the Kurds have provided critical backing to help al-Maliki become prime minister.
But their ties are rapidly unraveling as the country fragments in the face of the Sunni militant blitz, led by the Islamic State extremist group. The insurgency has effectively cleaved the country along ethnic and sectarian lines - the swath of militant-held Sunni areas, the Shiite-majority south and center ruled by the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and the Kurdish north. In the process, the Kurds appear increasingly ready to go it alone.
In recent days, the divisions between Baghdad and the Kurds have grown increasingly bitter. On Wednesday, al-Maliki accused the Kurds of harboring Sunni militants.
The Kurds responded by declaring their politicians will boycott Cabinet meetings, renewing demands that al-Maliki step down.
Baghdad, in turn, suspended all cargo flights to the Kurdish region's two main airports. And on Friday, al-Maliki appointed temporary replacements for all five Kurdish ministers in his Cabinet, said Deputy Prime Minister Hussain al-Shahristani.
The dispute comes as al-Maliki is struggling to fend off an attempt to remove him from his post by multiple political factions - including the Kurds but also from former Shiite allies who blame him for the failures to confront the Sunni militant offensive.
In Baghdad, national lawmakers are struggling broker an agreement on a new government and leadership, including the posts of prime minister, president and speaker of parliament, after April elections.
The legislature is scheduled to meet Sunday for its second session amid calls for the quick formation of a new government that can confront the militants and hold the country together.
Al-Maliki, whose State of Law bloc won the most seats in the elections, has shrugged off calls to step aside, vowing to pursue a third consecutive term. His opponents - and many former allies - want him removed, accusing him of monopolizing power during his eight years in office and contributing to the current crisis by failing to promote reconciliation with Sunnis.
The United States and other world powers, as well as Iraq's top Shiite cleric, have pressed for a more inclusive government that Iraqis of all stripes can rally around.
On Friday, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani again urged lawmakers to move swiftly toward a compromise, calling on them to "rise above selfish aims" and to "speed up the election of the three leadership positions and the formation of a new government accepted by wide national approval to lay the radical solutions to the country's accumulated problems and crises."
"The challenges and the large risks that face Iraq now and in the future threaten civil peace and the unity of the social fabric and forecast a divided and disputed future of Iraq," Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie, a cleric who represents the reclusive al-Sistani, told worshippers in a sermon Friday in the holy city of Karbala.
Egypt's foreign minister, in Baghdad on Friday, added Cairo's voice to the calls for unity.
"The only way to get Iraq out of crisis is to have a national inclusive position ... and to establish a national government capable of dealing with terrorism and violence facing the country," Sameh Shoukri said.