BAGHDAD — Iraq’s Kurdish minority took one step closer Thursday to going its own way, even as politicians in Baghdad, including Kurds, wrangled over the formation of a new central government that would appease the country’s deeply divided factions.
Massoud Barzani, president of the largely autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, called Thursday for a referendum on the region’s independence, telling the Kurdish parliament to prepare for such a vote, the Associated Press reported.
Barzani’s call came as Iraq’s government denied reports from Saudi news channel al-Arabiya that Iraqi forces had withdrawn from the country’s border with Saudi Arabia, compelling Riyadh to send 30,000 troops to secure its 500-mile shared frontier.
Earlier this week, al-Qaeda-
inspired militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria declared an Islamic caliphate spanning the areas under their control from northern Syria to eastern Iraq.
The Sunni militants, who now call themselves Islamic State, have swiftly seized territory along Iraq’s western borders and have come within 45 miles of Baghdad, the capital.
Lt. Gen. Qassim Atta, a spokesman for Iraq’s armed forces, told reporters Thursday that despite the news reports, the Saudi border was under the full control of Iraqi forces.
Iraq has separated into three increasingly distinct territories since Islamic State routed the government’s forces and took over a vast stretch of territory, including the northern city of Mosul, last month.
The new Iraq, as many analysts are referring to it, consists of a relatively stable far north, long controlled by the Kurds; a western and central swath of territory now controlled by the Sunni jihadists; and a capital and south that remain under the tenuous control of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government and its militia allies.
In the north, the Kurds have taken advantage of the Iraqi forces’ collapse to consolidate their authority over the contested, oil-rich city of Kirkuk. They also have established a front line against the Islamic State militants to replace what was once a boundary between Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of the country.
Barzani did not lay out a timeline for independence Thursday, but he told the Kurdish parliament that the Kurds need to “hurry up” in pushing forward with a referendum. They will be “in a better position” if they do so, he said, according to the Associated Press.
Also Thursday, Islamic State released 32 Turkish truck drivers whom they had captured last month, news services reported.
The drivers were reunited with their families after they crossed into southern Turkey, according to the Reuters news service.
About 49 Turks remain in the militants’ hands.
The militants also are holding at least 46 Indian nurses in the central Iraqi city of Tikrit, and according to Indian media, they moved the nurses out of a hospital in the city to another location on Thursday.
Iraqi government forces are days into an offensive to retake the city.