BAGHDAD (AP) — The president of Iraq's self-ruled Kurdish region visited Kurdish troops Monday in ethnically disputed areas near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, a move likely to worsen already poor relations with the country's central government.
The visit by Massoud Barzani to Kirkuk province was his first since June 2012, according to officials in the city. Tension between the Kurds and Baghdad flared up over the past two months following a decision by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to form a new military command to oversee security forces bordering the Kurdish region. The move has angered the Kurds.
The tensions between the mostly Kurdish region and the central government are just one of the elements of potential instability in Iraq, nearly a year after the last U.S. troops left the country. Sectarian violence in the form of bombings and shootings rattles the country, and the government is paralyzed by conflicts between Shiite and Sunni Muslim lawmakers.
Brig. Gen. Shirko Rauof, a Kurdish military commander, said Barzani met soldiers aligned to his region in two areas near Kirkuk. He urged them to be on high alert while avoiding any escalation with nearby forces from the central government. Control over the surrounding area is disputed by Iraqi Arabs and Kurds, as well as the smaller Turkomen minority.
The latest move by Barzani drew criticism from the Iraqi government and non-Kurdish provincial officials in Kirkuk.
The prime minister's spokesman, Ali al-Moussawi, described the visit as "provocative" and said it does not serve efforts to reach a peaceful solution of the problem of the disputed areas.
In Kirkuk, Burhan Mizhar, a Sunni Arab member in Kirkuk's provincial council said that the local government was not informed of the visit in advance.
"We reject such a visit, and we are afraid that the visit aims to increase tensions in Kirkuk," Mizhar said.
Iraq's central government and the Kurds have had heated disputes over land, oil and power sharing since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.