BAGHDAD – The dangerous struggle between the leadership of Iraq and the country’s Kurdish minority intensified Friday, as the Kurds seized two oil-production facilities in Kirkuk province and the prime minister announced that he was appointing a temporary replacement for the foreign minister.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, moved to replace the current foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, with Hussain Shahristani, a Shiite from Al-Maliki’s bloc. Al-Maliki was responding to a decision by Zebari and other Kurdish Cabinet members to boycott Cabinet meetings in protest of Al-Maliki’s criticism of the Kurds this week.
In a televised address Wednesday, Al-Maliki charged that the Kurds were harboring Sunni militant opponents of the central government and were even allowing members of the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which swept through northern Iraq in June, to organize operations from Kurdistan.
The replacement of Zebari infuriated the Kurds, but it also appeared to solidify their resolve to move ahead with the constitutional procedure to select a new government, including a president, prime minister and parliament speaker.
“With this step, the prime minister doesn’t leave any room for power sharing,” said Faleh Mustapha, who serves as the foreign affairs minister for the Kurdish regional government — a separate position from that of Iraqi foreign minister. “Had our ministers resigned from the government or if we had withdrawn entirely from the government, it would be different, but we are still participating in the political process,” he said.
The oil production facilities in Kirkuk province, on the border of the Kurds’ semiautonomous region, were previously run by the Iraqi government and had a primarily Arab staff. The fields were taken over at dawn by the Kurdish soldiers, and Arab employees were asked to leave, according to Iraq’s Oil Ministry and eyewitnesses in Kirkuk.