Kurdish ministers said Thursday that they were boycotting meetings of Iraq's caretaker Cabinet, spurring authorities in Baghdad to halt cargo flights to two Kurdish cities, as an escalating row between the Shia-led central government and Kurdish leaders made it seem unlikely Iraq would resolve its political turmoil.
The Kurds suspended attendance in protest of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's "provocative" branding of the Kurdish provincial capital, Erbil, as a haven for Al-Qaeda-breakaway group the Islamic State and other insurgents, the ministers said in a release Thursday.
Addressing the embattled prime minister, it continued: "You must apologize to the Iraqi people and step down. You have destroyed the country, and someone who has destroyed the country cannot save the country from crises."
A senior Kurdish official, speaking on condition of anonymity, later told Reuters that Kurdish officials would continue running their ministries and that they "did not pull out from the government." But the ministers did not mention a timeline for their boycott or terms for their return, and many suspect the Kurds have given up on political stability in Baghdad.
In response to the statement, cargo flights to Erbil and Iraq's second main Kurdish city, Sulaimaniya, were suspended until further notice, the head of Iraq's civil aviation authority Nasser Bandar told Reuters.
With an extremist-led insurgency raging in the country's Sunni provinces, the United States and other countries have called for politicians in Baghdad to set up a more inclusive government following parliamentary elections in April. Maliki, a Shia, has widely been accused of stoking the Sunni resentments that provided fertile ground for last month’s stunning takeover of large swaths of the country, led by the Islamic State.
The new Legislature has failed to agree on Iraqi leadership, leaving Maliki in power as a caretaker while Sunni and Kurdish leaders demand his resignation.
Relations hit a low Wednesday when Maliki accused the Kurds of allowing Erbil to be used as a center for the Islamic State and others, including former members of Saddam Hussein's now-banned Baath Party.
"We will never be silent about Erbil becoming a base for the operations of the Islamic State and Baathists and Al-Qaeda and the terrorists," Maliki said.
As Baghdad remains tangled in sectarian political disputes, the Kurds are now closer than ever to abandoning Iraq altogether, with Massoud Barzani, leader of their autonomous region, calling last week for his parliament to prepare a referendum on independence.
Maliki's relationship with Barzani has steadily deteriorated since last month, when the Islamic State and allied Sunni armed groups seized areas of northern and western Iraq.
Many Sunni Muslims who fled the mostly Sunni northern city of Mosul during the Islamic State–led offensive have ended up in Iraqi Kurdistan, with leading Sunni political figures hated by Maliki now frequenting Erbil.
Maliki, meanwhile, has accused the Kurds of exploiting the crisis to push for statehood. Amid the turmoil, elite Kurdish peshmerga forces seized control of the city of Kirkuk and its huge oil reserves a month ago, achieving a long-held dream.
Responding to what he called Maliki's "void" accusations, Omaid Sabah, Barzani's spokesman, said on Thursday that Maliki "has been afflicted by a true hysteria and lost his balance as he tries as hard as he can to justify his errors and failure and make others responsible for it."
Sabah said Erbil "is a refuge now for all those fleeing his dictatorship" and called for Maliki to apologize to the Iraqi people for destroying the country.
Al Jazeera and wire services