The leader of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region called on lawmakers Thursday to prepare an independence referendum, a move that threatens to lead to the breakup of Iraq.
Kurdistan, where most of Iraq's 5 million Kurds live in an oasis of stability flanked by sectarian strife, has enjoyed self-rule for more than two decades, but its leaders now apparently sense an opportunity to move toward full statehood.
The northern Iraqi territory last month gained control of the strategic region around Kirkuk after Iraqi soldiers fled an onslaught by Islamic radicals, leaving Iraq's most lucrative oil assets vulnerable to takeover by the militants. Kurdistan's peshmerga militiamen moved in to protect the oil wells and processing facilities, and Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani informed Baghdad last week that his region intended to retain control of the Kirkuk territory and assets.
Barzani said in an interview with the BBC this week that invasion by the radical group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, had imposed a de facto split of the country into Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite entities.
"Iraq is effectively partitioned now; should we stay in this tragic situation that Iraq is living? Of course, we are all with our Arab and Sunni brothers together in this crisis, but that doesn't mean that we will abandon our goal," Barzani told the BBC. "I have said many times that independence is a natural right of the people of Kurdistan. All these developments reaffirm that."
At a closed-door meeting with lawmakers Thursday, Barzani urged them to form an electoral commission to prepare the vote on independence and "determine the way forward," Kurdistan Democratic Party lawmaker Farhad Sofi was quoted as saying by Britain's Guardian newspaper and the Reuters news agency.
The Associated Press also reported the call for preparing a referendum after it said it had obtained and reviewed a videotape of Barzani's address to the Kurdistan regional parliament.
None of the reports gave an indication of when Kurds hope to stage the vote. Barzani said during the BBC interview that it would be "a matter of months."
Iraqi Kurds held a nonbinding referendum on independence in January 2005 in which 99% voted in favor of eventual statehood.
U.S. officials have urged the Kurds to stay united with the Iraqi government to put up a more concerted defense against the militant Sunni militia's rapacious advance. The group, which shortened its name this week to the Islamic State when it proclaimed a Muslim caliphate, also controls broad swaths of neighboring Syria following battles against other rebel groups fighting the Shiite-aligned government of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
But as central authority has eroded in Baghdad and Sunni-Shiite violence escalates, the Kurds have made clear their intentions to sever their region from the mounting chaos. Barzani told visiting U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry last month that he found it "very difficult" to see Iraq holding together.
Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri Maliki lashed out at the Kurds' takeover of Kirkuk and apparent strivings for independence.
"No one has the right to exploit current events in order to impose a fait accompli," Maliki said Wednesday, according to an Al Jazeera report from Irbil, the Kurdistan capital.
Maliki's Shiite Muslim political faction has been unable to form a new government since elections in April, and a collapse of parliamentary order Tuesday when the political factions proposed new alignments probably has further encouraged the Kurds to focus on their own future.