The president of Iraq's self-ruled Kurdish region threatened Tuesday to pull support from the nation's already wobbly coalition government, criticizing the central government for a power grab he denounced as ideological terrorism.
Kurdish Regional Government President Massoud Barzani stopped short of directly saying he would declare independence for the three-province Kurdish region from the that makes up Iraq's north. But he called political agreements between the region and Baghdad "meaningless" and said he was willing to put a decision to his people "in order not to blame us in the future."
The speech signaled a sharp deterioration in Iraq's already shaky political alignment. Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki kept his job only with Kurdish support after his party fell short of a majority in the 2010 parliamentary elections.
It came a week before an Arab summit is set to convene in Baghdad, already shaken by a wave of deadly attacks by militants.
"It is time to say that enough is enough, because Iraq is headed toward an abyss, and a small group of people are about to pull Iraq into a dictatorship," Barzani said in a speech that his aides billed as a major announcement. He delivered it on the occasion of Nowruz, the Kurdish and Iranian new year.
He said Iraq is facing "a serious crisis, and this situation absolutely is not acceptable to us."
Baghdad has been arguing for months with Kurdish leaders over whether Exxon Mobil Corp. should be allowed to develop lucrative oil fields in the north without the central government's approval.
Iraq's Oil Ministry last week said Exxon agreed to shelve its plans to avoid being blacklisted from other oil deals in Iraq until the country passes its oil law, which could take months at least, if not years. A spokesman for the Kurdish region denied that Exxon has frozen its plans, and Exxon officials have not commented.
Barzani accused Baghdad of pressuring oil companies against working in the north. "They in Baghdad get mad whenever any corporation come to the region to sign contracts," he said.
Barzani's heated complaints come the week before top Arab leaders are to meet in Baghdad in what the government hopes will showcase Iraq's move toward stability and national unity after years of sectarian fighting. The Kurdish president predicted that Iraq will not resolve any of its political feuding until after the Arab League summit ends March 29.
Sami al-Askeri, a close Shiite aide to al-Maliki, called the speech "unjustified" and said Barzani was just jealous he does not have a role to play in the summit.
"It comes in a period that we should have harmony, because we are close to the Arab League summit," al-Askeri said in an interview about Barzani's speech. "He wants to make a crisis, not to solve the situation."
It's not the first time in recent months that Iraq's government has been on the brink of falling apart. In December, the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya block walked out of parliament and the Cabinet in protest after the government issued an arrest warrant against Vice President Tariff al-Hashemi on terrorism charges he says are politically motivated. The boycott brought government work to a standstill until Iraqiya returned in February.
Talks to enact a power-sharing agreement between Iraqiya and al-Maliki's coalition have limped along without resolution for more than a year.
Associated Press Writers Lara Jakes and Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.