Iraqi Kurds have taken over two oil fields amid a growing dispute with the government in Baghdad, Iraqi and Kurdish sources say.
Kurdish peshmerga forces seized control of production facilities at the Bai Hassan and Kirkuk oil fields in the north of the country on Friday.
Kurdish MPs have also withdrawn from Iraq’s central government.
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They did so after Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki accused the Kurds of harbouring extremists.
In a statement on Friday, the Iraqi oil ministry condemned the seizure of oil refineries, adding that they expected Kurdish fighters to “support security forces in confronting terrorist groups rather than using the conditions to raid and occupy oil fields”.
Reuters news agency said a senior source within the Kurdistan Regional Government had confirmed the takeover.
The unnamed source said they had been “forced to act to protect Iraq’s infrastructure after learning of attempts by Iraq oil ministry officials to sabotage it.”
Kurdish officials, including Kurdistan Region leader Massoud Barzani, say they view independence of areas under Kurdish control as their right.
Tensions came to a head when Prime Minister Maliki said on Wednesday that the Kurdish provincial capital Irbil was a haven for Isis fighters.
Soon after, a spokesman for Massoud Barzani said Mr Maliki “had become hysterical” and urged him to step down.
Leader of the Kurdish region of Iraq Massoud Barzani: “The goal of Kurdistan is independence”
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, who is himself a Kurdish politician, told Reuters news agency on Friday that the Kurdish political bloc had suspended all day-to-day government business after Mr Maliki’s remarks.
He said the country risked division if an inclusive government was not formed soon, adding: “The country is now divided literally into three states – Kurdish, a black state [ISIS] and Baghdad”…
Oil industry sources confirmed that the Kurdistan regional government had deployed its peshmerga armed forces, as well as civilian oil workers, to facilities at the Kirkuk and Bai Hassan oilfields, which can produce 500,000 barrels of crude a day – although both have been dormant for months.
The takeover by the Kurds of almost all the assets of Iraq’s state-owned Northern Oil Company comes amid an escalating confrontation between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan regional government and one of the leaders of the two main factions that run the autonomous Kurdish enclave.
The takeover of the refinery can be seen as part of an effort by Kurds to create a viable independent state, though it may also be part of a game of brinkmanship between the Kurdish leadership and Mr Maliki over the future distribution of oil wealth.
This week Kurds demanded that international oil companies pay them directly the 17 per cent cut they are due from the sales of Iraqi crude after Mr Maliki refused to do so over a dispute on future energy revenues.