- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 2, 2008

BAGHDAD | Iraq’s central government on Friday stressed its opposition to any unilateral move to change the status of an oil-rich city the Kurds want to annex and warned against efforts to stir ethnic tensions in that area.

The warning by government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh came a day after Kurdish members of the Tamim provincial council signed a petition demanding the annexation of the provincial capital of Kirkuk and surrounding areas into the self-ruled Kurdish region in Iraq’s north despite opposition by Arab and Turkomen residents.

“The Iraqi government calls upon all parties and groups in Kirkuk province to resort to calmness … and refrain from carrying out any escalating measures that might harm the national unity,” Mr. al-Dabbagh said in a statement. “The Iraqi government is stressing its refusal against any unilateral measure to change the status of Kirkuk city.”

Mr. al-Dabbagh warned that “any violation or security threat by any armed group will be firmly dealt.”

The dispute is emerging as one of the biggest threats to the Shi’ite-led government’s efforts to heal the country’s sectarian rifts and prevent a new cycle of violence. A suicide bombing killed 25 people on Monday during a Kurdish protest against the government.

Iraq’s parliament is scheduled to hold a special session Sunday to try to resolve disagreements over power-sharing in the ethnically diverse city. The dispute has blocked legislation enabling U.S.-backed provincial elections.

Kurds fiercely oppose a legislative proposal that would divide the seats on the province’s council among the city’s ethnic groups. They are also angry over delays in holding a constitutionally mandated referendum that could grant them greater representation on the council, where they currently have 26 members in the 41-seat council.

Sheik Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalai, an aide to Iraq’s Shi’ite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, urged political parties Friday to find a formula to approve provincial elections and secure the rights of all ethnic groups in Kirkuk.

“We hope all political forces place the interests of the Iraqi people and the residents of Kirkuk above their narrow interests,” Sheik al-Karbalai said during his Friday sermon in the holy Shi’ite city of Karbala.

Also Friday, a roadside bomb struck an Iraqi army patrol killing three soldiers and wounding another near Kirkuk, the Iraqi army said.

In other violence, two suicide bombers detonated their explosive vests Friday wounding three Iraqi soldiers in the village of Umm Tabija near Duluiyah, about 45 miles north of Baghdad, the Iraqi military said.

The area is close to Diyala province, where about 50,000 Iraqi army and police forces have been pursuing al Qaeda in Iraq since Tuesday. Diyala is the terrorist group’s last remaining stronghold near Baghdad, and hundreds of suspects have been detained so far in the offensive.

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