By Suadad al-Salhy
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's prime minister asked the Kurdistan Regional Government Thursday to remove thousands of troops surrounding the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk without central government permission, a cabinet source said.
The government of the semi-autonomous northern region moved the heavily armed peshmerga troops into position around Kirkuk last week to secure the city from threatened attacks during mass protests, a senior Kurdish official said.
The move raised tensions in the volatile north and prompted Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to demand their immediate withdrawal, the Iraqi cabinet source said.
"These troops were deployed without the permission of the central government and the prime minister has asked them to draw down immediately," said the source, who asked not to be named.
Longstanding differences between Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen over land and oil in Kirkuk and other disputed northern areas are considered a potential flashpoint for future conflict.
Jafer Mustafa, the Kurdish minister of peshmerga, said the troops were deployed at the entrances to Kirkuk and in locations around the city to protect Kurds from alleged planned attacks by al Qaeda and members of Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party.
"Kirkuk originally was taken from the Kurdistan region and protecting it is our duty, not just that of the Iraqi government," Mustafa told Reuters.
"There was a serious danger awaiting the Kurds in Kirkuk because of these events (demonstrations). So peshmerga were deployed around Kirkuk to secure it from the threats."
Some 12,000 peshmerga troops armed with small and medium artillery as well as AK-47 assault rifles are surrounding Kirkuk, Arab and Kurdish sources said. The troops also have cannons and armored vehicles.
A police source said a curfew would be imposed on Kirkuk from 6 a.m. (0300 GMT) Friday ahead of the expected protests.
The cabinet source said Maliki had reached a provisional deal with Kurdish officials in Baghdad for the withdrawal of the troops, saying that protecting Kirkuk and other disputed areas was the exclusive responsibility of central government security forces.
But there was no immediate sign in Kirkuk that the Kurdish troops were withdrawing, officials on the spot said.
Iraqi troops and Kurdish peshmerga fighters have come close to blows on several occasions over the past two years as Maliki has sought to strengthen the central government's presence in and around the disputed areas.
The U.S. military has intervened several times to prevent fighting breaking out. U.S. troops will fully withdraw by the end of this year in accordance with a security pact with Iraq.
Ethnic Kurds have staked a claim to Kirkuk, which sits on massive oil reserves, and want it wrapped into their semi-autonomous region. The city's population is a mix of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen and others.
"The street (people) in Kirkuk are afraid of the entry of these forces into the city in any moment with its big numbers and heavy weapons," said Abdulla Sami al-Asi, a member of Kirkuk's provincial council. "If this happens, there will be a big problem that cannot be controlled."
(Additional reporting by Shamal Aqrawi in Arbil and Mustafa Mahmoud in Kirkuk; editing by Paul Taylor)