Iraq's Kurdistan president Barzani speaks during a conference in Arbil
Stringer/iraq  /  Reuters
Iraq's Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani is flanked by an Iraqi flag from the 1960's (L) and the present Kurdistan flag (R) as he speaks during a conference in Arbil, about 350 km (220 miles) north of Baghdad, September 3, 2006. The leader of Iraq's ethnic Kurds brandished the threat of secession on Sunday as a row with the Baghdad government over the flying of the Iraqi national flag exposed an increasingly bitter rift. After the Kurdish regional government banned the use of the Iraqi flag on public buildings, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki issued a blunt statement demanding use of the national tricolour and implying that the Kurds' own banner was illegitimate. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari (IRAQ)
updated 9/3/2006 7:13:00 PM ET 2006-09-03T23:13:00

The leader of the Kurdish region in northern Iraq threatened secession Sunday as a dispute over flying the Iraqi flag intensified.

Massoud Barzani on Friday ordered the country’s national flag to be replaced with the Kurdish one, sparking harsh words in Baghdad.

“If we want to separate, we will do it, without hesitation or fears,” Barzani, president of the Kurdish region, said during an address to parliament.

He tempered his comments slightly by saying that Kurdish leaders already have voted to remain in a united Iraq. But government leaders in Baghdad fear the Kurds are pushing for independence from the rest of Iraq.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a terse statement Sunday.

“The current Iraqi flag is the only one which must be hoisted on each bit of Iraq’s land until a decision is adopted by the parliament according to the constitution,” the statement from his office said.

President Jalal Talabani’s office on Sunday denounced the flap over the flag as an “exaggerated noise.”

‘Constitutional vacuum’
Talabani, a Kurd, defended Barzani’s move, saying there had been a “constitutional vacuum” over the flag issue. Iraq’s first interim Governing Council that came after the fall of Saddam Hussein decided to change the flag but no official version has been adopted yet.

“What made the Kurdish parliament take this step is this blunder,” the statement said. It added that the flag the Iraqi parliament will adopt will become “sacred” and will be flown throughout Iraq, “including Kurdistan’s mountain tops.”

The Kurdish region gradually has been gaining more autonomy since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, a worrying development to many Iraqi leaders, especially Sunni Arabs. If the Kurds were to become independent along with the Shiite majority in the oil-rich south, the Sunnis would be left with little more than date groves and sand.

Sunni lawmaker condemns flag action
On Saturday, Sunni Arab lawmaker Saleh al-Mutlaq slammed Barzani’s decision.

“What will be taken by force today, will be returned by force another day,” he said, without elaborating. “We can defend our dignity, our people and our land ... and no one should be under the illusion that he could take a tiny bit of somebody else’s land.”

Speaking to parliament, Barzani said the national flag does not represent Iraqis. He said the Kurds would use an early version of the Iraqi flag that was flown after the end of the monarchy in 1958.

The Kurdish area had been out of Saddam Hussein’s control since the 1991 Gulf War, when the Kurds set up their autonomous region under the protection of U.S. and British warplanes. After the U.S.-led invasion, Kurdistan was the only region that did not witness major changes.

Iraq’s new constitution recognizes Kurdish self-rule and provides a legal mechanism for other areas to govern themselves but within the Iraqi state.

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