Kurdish forces seized two oilfields in north Iraq yesterday and took over operations from a state-run oil company, while Kurdish politicians formally withdrew from Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.
The moves escalated a feud between the Shiite-led central government and the autonomous Kurdish region driven by a Sunni insurgency which threatens to fragment Iraq on sectarian and ethnic lines three years after the withdrawal of US forces.
The Kurdish forces took over production facilities at the Bai Hassan and Kirkuk oilfields near Kirkuk yesterday, the oil ministry in Baghdad said. It called on the Kurds to withdraw immediately to avoid "dire consequences".
Kurdish forces took control of the nearby city of Kirkuk a month ago after Iraqi armed forces withdrew in the face of a lightning assault by Islamic State militants, who have seized large parts of north and west Iraq.
The two oilfields have a combined production capacity of 450,000 barrels per day, but have not been producing significant volumes since March when Baghdad's Kirkuk-Ceyhan export pipeline was sabotaged.
The relationship between Maliki and the Kurds hit a new low this week when the prime minister accused Kurds of allowing their capital to be used as a base for the Islamic State and others, including former members of Saddam Hussein's now-banned Baath Party.
In protest against the accusation, the Kurdish political bloc announced their full withdrawal from the Baghdad government yesterday. Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said the Kurds would still attend parliament.
The bitter political accusations prompted the country's top Shiite cleric to urge its leaders to end their bickering and for fighters to respect all Iraqis.
"We have repeatedly called for the closing of ranks and for unity and to refrain from radical discourse," Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani said in a sermon delivered by an aide.
"We would like to stress to all our armed forces and those volunteers who have joined them ... the necessity of strict and full commitment in taking care of the rights of all the people," aide Abdul Mehdi Al-Karbala'i told worshippers at the Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala.