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Maliki replaces Kurdish foreign minister as sectarian rift widens

Kurdish politicians announced they would pull out of the central government earlier on Friday

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has replaced the country’s Kurdish foreign minister, Hoshiyar Zebari, amid a widening rift between the central government and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).

Maliki was acting in response to an announcement by Kurdish politicians that they would pull out of the central government, after Maliki accused the KRG of harboring "Sunni extremists" in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region.

Hussain al-Shahristani, a Shia from Maliki’s bloc and a former oil minister, has been named the acting foreign minister in Zebari’s place.

Baghdad and the leaders of Iraq’s autonomous northern Kurdish region have squabbled for years over a host of issues, chief among them oil rights and land disputes. They have also found room for compromise, with the Kurds providing critical backing to help Maliki become prime minister.

But the Sunni insurgency led by Al-Qaeda-breakaway group the Islamic State has effectively cleaved the country along ethnic and sectarian lines — the swath of rebel-held Sunni areas, the Shia-majority south and center ruled by the Maliki's government in Baghdad, and the Kurdish north.

Amid the chaos, Kurdish Peshmerga forces have expanded their control to include the disputed northern oil city of Kirkuk in June and now seem poised to declare their independence from the rest of Iraq. The prime minister of Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, has already called for a public referendum on independence in the coming weeks.

Maliki accuses the Kurds of exploiting the security crisis to push for statehood, while the Kurds have been fiercely critical of the embattled prime minister, who is accused of promoting the interests of Shias and laying fertile ground for the current sectarian unrest.

Earlier on Friday, Zebari said Kurdish politicians would stop running their ministries, a day after they had announced a boycott of cabinet meetings. Kurdish MPs would continue to attend parliament, elected on April 30, Zebari said, adding that the country risked falling apart if an inclusive government was not formed.

"The country is now divided literally into three states; Kurdish; a black state [the area controlled by the Islamic State group] and Baghdad," he said.

Against this backdrop, a suicide car bombing and a roadside bomb killed 13 people and wounded 21 others in Kirkuk, an Iraqi health official said. Among the victims of Friday's two blasts at Kirkuk's southern entrance were four women, two children and two policemen, the head of Kirkuk's health directorate told AFP news agency.

Earlier in the day, the Iraqi Oil Ministry said Kurdish soldiers had taken control of two oilfields near Kirkuk, expelling Arab workers and replacing them with Kurdish personnel.

Assem Jihad, the oil ministry’s spokesman, denounced the takeover as "a violation to the constitution ... and a threat to national unity."

“These are among the main wells producing oil in Iraq,” he said. “They are the spine of Iraq’s oil wealth and produce 400,000 barrels a day.”

Disputing the account, the KRG said its forces moved to secure the fields after learning of what it said were orders by officials in the Oil Ministry to sabotage a pipeline linking oil facilities in the area.

It said production would continue and that staff could return, but that the facilities will operate under Kurdish management.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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