IRBIL, Iraq - The prime minister of Iraq's Kurdish region accused the Arab-dominated national government yesterday of trying to use troops to seize control of the disputed city of Kirkuk, escalating tensions between Iraqi Kurds and the Arab leadership in Baghdad.
U.S. officials consider the growing Arab-Kurdish rift to be one of the major threats to Iraq's stability as President Obama's administration maps plans to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.
Kurdish officials, close American allies who have jealously guarded their self-governing territory in the north since the U.S. helped set it up in 1991, have in recent months stepped up their criticism of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
They have accused him of trying to reestablish a strong centralized state similar to Saddam Hussein's regime.
Tempers flared again about two weeks ago when troops of the Iraqi army's 12th Division moved from their base north of Kirkuk to towns around the city close to where Kurdish fighters loyal to the Kurdish regional government were deployed, according to senior Kurdish official Jabbar Yawar.
"We in the [Kurdish government] consider this to be a provocative act," Kurdish regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said of the troop movements in an e-mail sent to the Associated Press.
Kirkuk is not part of the Kurdish self-governing region and is under the political control of the central government. The Kurds have long demanded that Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, be incorporated into their self-governing region.
Yawar said the Kurds appealed to the U.S. military to stop the movements of the largely Arab troop contingent.
Although the troop movements were halted, Kurdish officials remain suspicious about Maliki's intentions.
Barzani said the troop movements were "not to provide security to these areas" but rather to control the city "in a military way - something that cannot and will not be accepted" by the Kurdish authorities.
Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mohammed al-Askari said that there was nothing unusual in the troop movements and that "the Iraqi army has the right to be in all the provinces. It is an army for all the Iraqi nation."
Kurdish suspicions were heightened because the moves occurred just before the Jan. 31 elections, when voters in most of the country chose ruling provincial councils.
The vote was indefinitely postponed in the Kirkuk area because of ethnic tensions. Arabs and Turkomen want Kirkuk, which contains up to 13 percent of Iraq's proven oil reserves, to remain under central government control.
Kurdish officials fear Maliki will take additional steps to pressure them because his party was the big winner in the Jan. 31 balloting.
Maliki's allies ran strong in the oil-rich south, where voters chose his vision of a strong centralized state over a more decentralized system advocated by Shiite rivals and modeled on the Kurdish self-governing region.
The Kurdish-Arab dispute dates back decades to a campaign by Arab-dominated governments in Baghdad to settle Arabs in the northern oil fields and in territory near the border with Iran.
Under Saddam, thousands of Kurds were forced out of their homes and provincial borders redrawn, depriving the Kurds of land they believed was their own.