The president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region
asked its parliament on Thursday to plan a referendum on Kurdish independence,
signalling his impatience with Baghdad, which is fighting to repel Sunni
insurgents and struggling to form a new government.
The move came despite US pressure for Kurds to
stand with Baghdad as Iraq faces an onslaught by Sunni Muslim militants, led by
an al Qaeda offshoot, which has seized large parts of the north and west and is
threatening to march on the capital.
Iraq's 5 million Kurds, who have governed
themselves in relative peace since the 1990s, have expanded their territory by
as much as 40 percent in recent weeks as the sectarian insurgency has
threatened to split the country.
Kurdish President Massoud Barzani asked lawmakers
to form a committee to organise a referendum on independence and pick a date
for the vote.
"The time has come for us to determine our own
fate and we must not wait for others to determine it for us," Barzani said
in a closed session of the Kurdish parliament that was later broadcast on
"For that reason, I consider it necessary ...
to create an independent electoral commission as a first step and, second, to
make preparations for a referendum."
Barzani's call came days after Kurds and Sunnis
walked out of the newly elected Iraqi parliament's first session in Baghdad,
complaining that the majority Shi'ites had failed to nominate a prime minister.
Many Kurds have long wanted to declare independence
and now sense a golden opportunity, with Baghdad weak and Sunni armed groups in
control of northern cities such as Mosul and Tikrit.
Top US defence officials, who have deployed
advisers to the region to assess the state of the Iraqi military, said the
security forces were able to defend Baghdad but would have difficulty going on
the offensive to recapture lost territory, mainly because of logistical
"If you're asking me will the Iraqis at some
point be able to go back on the offensive to recapture the part of Iraq that
they've lost, I think that's a really broad campaign quality question,"
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told
reporters at the Pentagon. "Probably not by themselves."
Dempsey said "the future is pretty bleak"
for Iraqis unless they can bridge the sectarian differences within their government.
The absence of an inclusive government, he said, was a factor in the security
forces' failure to stand up to ISIL.
"They didn't collapse in the face of a fight.
They collapsed in the face of a future that didn't hold out any hope for
them," Dempsey said.
Unless the Iraqi government bridges internal
sectarian differences and "gets the message out that it really does intend
to allow participation by all groups, everything we're talking about (doing to
help) makes no difference," he said.
Many see the Shi'ite prime minister, Nuri Al Maliki,
as the main obstacle to resolving the crisis and hope he will step aside.
Maliki himself said a political solution went
hand-in-hand with the campaign to recapture areas held by insurgents.
"There is no security without complete
political stability," he said in a televised address on Wednesday.
"We will proceed with our political projects but we will be on high alert
and ready for the momentum of the battle."
Security forces are battling fighters led by the
Islamic State, which shortened its name from the Islamic State in Iraq and the
Levant this week and named its leader "caliph," the historical title
of successors of the Prophet Mohammad who ruled the Muslim world.
Rising concern and pressure from the United States,
Iran, the United Nations and Iraq's own Shi'ite clerics has done little to end
the paralysing divisions between Iraq's main ethnic and sectarian blocs.
Mithal Al Alusi, a prominent Sunni politician, said
he did not think Maliki was prepared to step aside. "Mr. Maliki wants to
continue and he believes ... that without him nothing can be done in
Iraq," he said.
In the system put in place after the United States
toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, the premiership is traditionally given to a
Shi'ite, while the speaker of the house has been a Sunni and the president, a
largely ceremonial role, has been a Kurd.
In his weekly televised address, Maliki said he
hoped parliament could get past its "state of weakness" and reach
consensus in its next session, planned for Tuesday. But it is far from clear
when leaders in Baghdad might do so.
All the main blocs are beset by internal divisions,
and none has yet decided who to put forward for its designated position.
Dia Al Asadi, secretary general of the Al Ahrar
bloc, a Shi'ite faction loyal to powerful cleric Moqtada Al Sadr and opposed to
Maliki, told Reuters that only Maliki's own State of Law coalition would
support his staying on as prime minister.
"There is objection by almost all of the other
groups - the Kurds, the Sunnis, and the other Shi'ites," he said.
Each of the blocs has said it wants to know who the
others will choose for their posts before naming its own - meaning the
nominations will have to be done as a package.
Maliki's government, bolstered by civilian
volunteers and Shi'ite militias, has managed to stop the militant advance short
of the capital, but has been unable to take back the cities that government
The army failed last week to take back Tikrit, 160
km (100 miles) north of Baghdad, and remained on the outskirts of the city on
Thursday, according to the prime minister's military spokesman Lieutenant
General Qassim Atta.
In the northeasterly province of Diyala, 14
militants were killed in fighting with security forces, local police said.
The head of the region's police, Jamil Al Shimmeri,
said security forces had taken back control of the village of Showhani near the
town of Muqdadiya, 80 km northeast of Baghdad.
Insurgents have been present in Diyala for the past
several weeks, following their rapid seizure of Mosul, one of Iraq's largest
cities, to the north.
US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said the US
military had six assessment teams on the ground evaluating the state of Iraqi
forces and had established Iraqi-US joint operations centres in Baghdad and
Arbil to coordinate activities.
Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television said Saudi Arabia
had deployed 30,000 soldiers to its border with Iraq after Iraqi soldiers
withdrew from the area, but Iraq denied the report.
Al Arabiya broadcast footage of what it said were
Iraqi soldiers in the desert area east of the city of Karbala after pulling
back from the border. But the army spokesman said the border was still under
the full control of Iraqi forces.