Massud Barzani, the president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, asked its parliament yesterday to start organising a referendum on the long-held dream of independence.
The United States has urged the Kurds to stand with Baghdad as Iraq faces an onslaught by Sunni Muslim militants led by an al-Qaeda offshoot who have seized large parts of the north and west and are threatening to march on the capital.
The group the Islamic State yesterday marched across eastern Syria near the border with Iraq, seizing towns, villages and the country's largest oil field along the way as rival rebel factions gave up the fight, activists said.
Iraq's five million Kurds, who have governed themselves in relative peace since the 1990s, have expanded their territory by as much as 40 per cent in the recent weeks of turmoil as the sectarian insurgency has threatened to split the country
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 television. 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. Barzani, often at odds with the central government, indicated that his people would not wait on Baghdad forever. "We will not deal with those who have sabotaged the country," he said. "Iraq has divided itself and we are not responsible for that."
Many see the Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, as the main obstacle to resolving the crisis and hope he will step aside. 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 given to the successors of the Prophet Mohammed who ruled the Muslim world.
Rising concern and pressure from the United States, Iran, the UN and Iraq's own Shiite clerics has done little to end the paralysing divisions between Iraq's main ethnic and sectarian blocs.
Maliki's government, bolstered by civilian volunteers and Shiite militias, has managed to stop the militant advance short of the capital, but has been unable to take back the cities that government forces abandoned.
The capture of the al-Omar oil field in Syria gives Islamic State control of crude reserves, which could be useful to its advancing fighters, and underlines how the al-Qaeda offshoot has eclipsed its militant rivals by capturing territory and assets across Syria and Iraq in the past few weeks.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Islamic State "took leadership" of the oil field from Nusra Front, the official wing of al-Qaeda in Syria.
It was not possible to independently verify the contents of the video.
The insurgents' progress has rattled the region, and Saudi Arabia has deployed 30,000 troops to the border with Iraq, the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya television network reported.
Agence France-Presse, Reuters, Associated Press