Thousands of Iraqi Kurds demonstrated in this northern city Sunday to demand the right to raise the Kurdish region's flag over government buildings.
The protest in Khanaqin illustrates the nagging problem over the future of the "disputed" territories _ areas claimed by both the Kurds in the north and the central government in Baghdad. It illustrates one of the many serious difficulties facing Iraq, with U.S. troops set to pull out at the end of the year.
Khanaqin is in Diyala province and falls under Baghdad's authority, but a large number of the residents are Kurds and would prefer to ally themselves with the Kurdish regional government, which controls three other provinces in northern Iraq.
The right to fly the Kurdish flag is a deeply emotional issue for many who see it as a sign of independence against both the deposed Saddam Hussein regime and the current Arab-dominated government in Baghdad. In contrast, many Arabs see such attempts to fly the Kurdish flag in Khanaqin and other places as creeping expansion of Kurdish power and influence.
Thousands of people marched through the streets of Khanaqin, 90 miles (140 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad, waving Kurdish flags and shouting anti-government slogans.
"Khanaqin remains Kurdish," they shouted.
Sunday's demonstration was against what the protesters and the regional government said was a recent order from the central government to take down flags.
Maj. Ghalib al-Karkhi, spokesman for Diyala province police, said Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki's office ordered the removal of Kurdish flags from the government buildings in Khanaqin because the city does not belong to the Kurdish autonomous region. They said the order arrived abut two weeks ago.
Al-Karkhi said the order was not implemented because of the protests.
An Iraqi government spokesman, Ali al-Moussawi, would not confirm or deny the order's existence but said raising the Kurdish flag in Khanaqin is against the constitution and could increase tensions.
Schools, shops, markets and government institutions were closed. Kurdish flags could be seen on walls and flying from rooftops of houses, shops and government institutions. Police and army vehicles, taxis, buses and other vehicles were covered with Kurdish flags.
"Thousands of Kurds were martyred for the sake of this flag, so we are ready to defend this flag with our blood," said Mahmoud Sangawi, a member of the Kurdish PUK party.
A man tried to burn himself during the protest, but the crowd managed to put out the fire.
Associated Press writers Bushra Juhi and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report from Baghdad.
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