Just days before a referendum on whether to split from Baghdad, the governor of Kirkuk – who supports Kurdish independence – was ousted from Iraq’s parliament.
But Kirkuk Governor Najmaddin Kareem said he had no intention of following Baghdad’s order, which were issued at the behest of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
“I will stay in office,” he told Reuters. “The referendum will go on as planned… The prime minister does not have the power to ask parliament to remove me.”
Meanwhile, the Kurdish presidency said leaders would study a western plan to delay the referendum and ease tensions. But hours later, President Massoud Barzani himself was quoted by local media as telling a rally the vote would go ahead on September 25 as planned.
Kareem is a vocal supporter of the referendum and campaigned for the vote to be held in Kirkuk.
According to Reuters, Kurds have long claimed Kirkuk and its huge oil reserves. They regard the city, just outside their Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, as their historical capital. But the ethnically mixed city also has Arab and Turkmen populations.
The referendum has become a potential flashpoint in the region, with Western powers worrying it could ignite conflict with the central government in Baghdad and divert attention from the war against Islamic State militants.
On September 14, a delegation from the United States, the UN and Britain met with Barzani to discuss a possible delay to the referendum. Kurdish Head of Foreign Relations Falah Mustafa called this “an alternative path.”