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Iraq fights assault as Kurds seize oilfields

RAMADI, Iraq, July 11, (Agencies): Iraq battled a militant assault on the city of Ramadi Friday while the Kurds claimed disputed oilfields, another blow to efforts to forge a united front against a jihadist-led onslaught. The militant push to take the capital of Anbar province comes two days before a planned parliamentary session to revive flagging efforts to replace the caretaker government in power since April elections. Sunni militants have captured areas west of Ramadi since the fighting began Thursday afternoon, killing 11 police, bombing a police station and capturing another, an officer and a doctor said. The officer, a police lieutenant colonel, said the insurgents were attempting to “storm Ramadi from the western side”.

The fall of the city, where anti-government fighters have held shifting areas since early this year, would be a major advance for the jihadist-led militants who have overrun large areas of five provinces, including parts of Anbar, since June 9. It could increase the threat to the capital by solidifying militant positions in Anbar and breaking the isolation of insurgent- held Fallujah, which lies only 60 kilometres (37 miles) west of Baghdad.

As the battle for Ramadi raged, Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region claimed control of several disputed northern oilfields. “Members of the Kurdistan Regional Government and Kirkuk Oil Protection Forces moved to secure the oilfields of Bai Hassan and the Makhmour area,” the region’s government said. “Production at the new fields under KRG control will be used primarily to fill the shortage of refined products in the domestic market,” it said, adding that staff from the federal North Oil Company could either cooperate with new management or leave.

The move enraged the Baghdad government, which labelled it “irresponsible behaviour which violates the constitution and the national wealth, and disregards the federal authorities and threatens national unity.” The oilfield seizures come after Kurdish peshmerga fighters moved into stretches of disputed northern areas vacated by Iraqi forces during the initial militant offensive last month, and regional president Massud Barzani has said they will stay there. Maliki has accused Barzani of exploiting the chaos created by the jihadist Islamic State (IS), and said the region was hosting militants involved in the offensive.

That claim drew derision from Barzani’s office, which shot back Thursday that Maliki “has become hysterical and has lost his balance”. Saying Maliki had “destroyed the country,” it demanded he “apologise to the Iraqi people and step down”. Control over the Kirkuk region and its oil wealth would be the realisation of a long-held Kurdish dream, and Barzani’s announcement this month that a referendum on independence was in the works has enraged the Shiite Arab premier.

The escalating war of words between Maliki and the Kurds has already cast a pall over the parliamentary session slated for Sunday. So far, international calls for feuding politicians to come together to face the militant offensive have gone unheeded. In a sign of what may occur in parliament, Kurdish ministers said Maliki’s stance “only served the enemies of Iraq and the terrorists” and announced they were boycotting cabinet sessions. Deputy Prime Minister Hussein al- Shahristani is serving as acting foreign minister in place of Hoshyar Zebari, one of the Kurdish ministers boycotting the cabinet, a senior official said. In his latest rebuke of Iraqi politicians, top Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al- Sistani, who is revered by millions, on Friday called for them to stop quarrelling and avoid further delays in picking a new leadership.

The new MPs’ first attempt at selecting a parliament speaker on July 1 ended in disarray, with deputies trading threats and some eventually walking out. The next session was announced for August 12 but such a delay caused an outcry among the Iraqi public and the world powers, exasperated by the lack of urgency politicians were displaying in a country mired in its worst crisis for years. Many factions, even apparently within the premier’s own bloc, agree Maliki needs to step aside if deadly sectarianism is to be reined in, but the incumbent has insisted his bid for a third term is legitimised by winning more votes than anyone else. Some observers argue Maliki is intentionally seeking to scupper the upcoming parliamentary session to buy more time and tip political support in his favour.

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