Councillors in the Iraqi province of Kirkuk have voted to take part in next month’s Kurdish independence referendum in a session, however, that was boycotted by Turkmen and Arab members.
The central government in Baghdad is strongly opposed to Iraqi Kurdistan’s planned September 25 referendum, which is non-binding but could lead to independence.
Kirkuk, an ethnically-mixed oil-rich province, is not part of the Kurdistan region but has a large Kurdish population.
In Tuesday’s vote, 22 of the 24 present councillors in the 41-member Kirkuk council voted in favour of holding the referendum, said councillor Hala Nur Eddine.
Kirkuk’s provincial council consists of 26 Kurds, nine Turkmen and six Arabs.
While Baghdad says Kirkuk is “administratively dependent” on Iraq’s central government, many Kurds – including the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which dominates political life in the province – demand the province’s incorporation into the Kurdish region.
Kirkuk’s Turkmen, for their part, oppose this, insisting that the ethnically-diverse province enjoys a “special status”.
Speaking to journalists afterwards, Kirkuk Governor Najm Eddine Karim described the vote as a “historic event”.
“We have the right to take part in the referendum, and whoever denies this knows nothing about human rights,” Karim told reporters.
But Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi denounced the decision as “wrong”.
“Issues are not handled like this,” he told reporters following a meeting of his council of ministers.
Hasan Turan, a Turkmen legislator and vice-president of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, also blasted the council’s decision, describing it as “unconstitutional”.
The plans to hold the referendum have been criticised by neighbouring Turkey and Iran, which have large Kurdish minority populations.
The Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement that the Kirkuk’s council decision was “another link in a chain of mistakes” and “once more a serious violation of the Iraqi constitution”.
There are also doubts about the vote among the five million Iraqi Kurds, with some calling for it to be postponed.
The United States has made the same demand, saying the referendum could distract from the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group by stoking tensions between the Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen.
The Iraqi Kurdish region was created in 1992 and calls for independence have gained impetus following a 2003 US-led invasion, which toppled former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.