updated 7/31/2007 8:58:41 PM ET 2007-08-01T00:58:41

The leader of Iraq's Kurdish region warned Tuesday of a "real civil war" if the central government does not implement a constitutional clause on the future of Kirkuk, the oil-rich city claimed by the Kurds.

Control over Kirkuk and the surrounding oil wealth is in dispute among the city's Kurdish, Arab and ethnic Turkish populations. Nationally, the dispute pits the Kurds, who want to annex it to their autonomous region in northern Iraq, against the country's Arab majority and its small minority of Turks, known locally as Turkomen.

Massoud Barzani, speaking in an interview with U.S.-funded Alhurra television, complained that the Baghdad government was dragging its feet on holding a referendum that could put Kirkuk under control of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

"There is procrastination (by the government) and if this issue is not resolved, as I said before, all options are open. ... Frankly I am not comfortable with the behavior and the policy of the federal government on Kirkuk and clause 140," he said.

'A real civil war'
The constitutional clause calls for a referendum in Kirkuk to decide its future status by the end of the year. Before the vote, the clause says Kurds expelled from the city during Saddam Hussein's rule must be allowed to return. A census would then be held to determine which ethnic group was a majority of the population.

Tens of thousands of Kurds have returned to the city since Saddam's ouster in 2003, but a census has not been conducted.

"The Kurds will never relinquish or bargain over Kirkuk, but we accepted to regain Kirkuk through constitutional and legal methods. But if we despair of those constitutional and legal methods, then we will have the right to resort to other means," Barzani warned.

"If clause 140 is not implemented, then there will be a real civil war," Barzani said, promising to visit Baghdad shortly to discuss the matter with the central government.

Barzani's warning was certain to deepen the political instability and further weaken Nouri al-Maliki, the embattled Shiite prime minister who already is fighting for his government's survival.

He is under severe pressure from Washington to take concrete steps to help reconcile Iraq's Shiites, Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

Contested city
A blueprint for Kirkuk's future was laid out in Iraq's 2005 constitution, but the city is widely viewed as a time bomb that could plunge Iraq deeper into crisis and violence.

Barzani accused unidentified countries of trying to delay a resolution of the Kirkuk issue and urged the Baghdad government not to succumb to regional pressures. It was clear he was referring to Turkey, where separatist Kurdish guerrillas are fighting government forces in the southeast of the country. Al-Maliki is due to visit Turkey in early August.

Adnan al-Mufti, the speaker of the Kurdish parliament, also criticized the central government's handling of the Kirkuk issue, saying it was partly to blame for missing a July 31 deadline to produce lists of eligible voters in the city and its surrounding districts.

The lists were to be compiled by a Baghdad-based government commission that includes Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen officials.

"It is not completely the fault of the federal government because we do understand that the deteriorating security situation in Kirkuk has played a role in this delay," al-Mufti said.

"The census issue is only part of the article and failing to carry it on time does not mean a total failure. We should work hard and fast with the federal government because we have limited time," he told The Associated Press from Irbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan.

'A legitimate right'
Barzani told the television interviewer that Kurdish nationhood was a "reality" rather than a dream. A Kurdish homeland, he said, was a "natural right for a nation of more than 50 million people in the Middle East. Why should we be denied this right?"

He ruled out, however, the use of violence to establish a Kurdish homeland, a prospect that worries Iran, Turkey and Syria because it would set a dangerous precedent for their own restive Kurdish minorities.

"It's a legitimate right but it must be realized at the suitable time," Barzani said of establishing a Kurdish nation.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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