BAGHDAD/KIRKUK, Iraq: Kurdish forces seized two oil fields in northern Iraq and took over operations from a state-run oil firm Friday, while Kurdish politicians suspended their participation in Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government.
The moves escalated a feud between the Shiite-led central government and the autonomous Kurdish region against the backdrop of a Sunni insurgency that threatens to fragment Iraq along sectarian and ethnic lines.
The Kurdish forces took over production facilities at the Bai Hassan and Kirkuk oilfields near Kirkuk, the Oil Ministry said, urging the Kurds to withdraw immediately to avoid “dire consequences.”
The two oil fields have a combined production capacity of 450,000 barrels per day but have not been producing significant volumes since March when Baghdad's Kirkuk-Ceyhan export pipeline was sabotaged.
An Oil Ministry spokesman in Baghdad described the takeover as dangerous and irresponsible.
“We ask the people responsible for this disorderly behavior to withdraw immediately from these sites in order to avoid dire consequences,” the spokesman, Asim Jihad, said.
Kurdish authorities said they acted after hearing that the Oil Ministry planned to disrupt a pipeline designed to pump oil from one of the facilities.
Bai Hassan and the Makhmour part of the Kirkuk oilfield had been under the control of the state's North Oil Company.
Meanwhile, efforts to reach agreement on a new government in Baghdad that would confront the insurgents have been complicated by the tensions between Maliki and the Kurds. Parliament is scheduled to meet Sunday in the second attempt to agree on nominations for the top three government posts.
The relationship hit a new low this week when Maliki accused the Kurds of allowing Irbil to be used as a base for ISIS and other insurgents.
In protest, the Kurdish political bloc announced Friday that it was suspending its participation in the government. Zebari, a Kurd, said Iraq risked falling apart if a new inclusive government is not formed soon as “the country is now divided literally into three states – “Kurdish, a black state (ISIS) and Baghdad.”
After the announcement, Maliki appointed Hussain al-Shahristani, the deputy prime minister, as acting foreign minister, an official in Shahristani’s office told Reuters.
The political turbulence prompted the country’s top Shiite religious scholar to urge leaders to end their bickering and for fighters to respect all Iraqis regardless of sect or ethnicity. “We have repeatedly called for the closing of ranks, for unity and to refrain from radical discourse,” Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani said in a sermon delivered by an aide.