KIRKUK, IRAQ —
Iraq's oil-producing Kirkuk region will vote in a referendum on Kurdish independence on September 25, its provisional council decided Tuesday, a move that could increase tension with Arab and Turkmen residents.
The ethnically mixed region is claimed by both the central government in Baghdad and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq.
The vote is "definitely happening" on September 25, Kirkuk Governor Najmuddin Kareem told Reuters after a majority of the provincial council voted in favor of taking part.
The KRG had said it was up to the local councils of Kirkuk and three other disputed regions of Iraq to decide whether to join the vote on the independence of the Kurdish region.
The vote in the disputed regions would amount to deciding whether to join the KRG or remain under the jurisdiction of the Shi'ite Arab-led government in Baghdad.
Baghdad said the referendum was unconstitutional.
The United States and Western nations fear the vote could lead to conflicts with Baghdad and neighboring Turkey and Iran, which host sizable Kurdish populations, diverting attention from the fight against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.
A senior Kurdish official has said Iraq's Kurds could consider postponing the referendum in return for financial and political concessions from the central government.
"Those who ask for a postponement — including Baghdad and the U.S. and Europe and whoever — should give us a time," Kareem said. "Why don't they propose a date?"
Kurdish peshmerga fighters seized control of Kirkuk in 2014 when the Iraqi army fled in the face of Islamic State's sweeping offensive across northern and western Iraq, preventing the region's oil fields from falling into the hands of the militants.
The Kurds have been seeking an independent state since at least the end of World War I, when colonial powers divided up the Middle East and left Kurdish-populated territory split among modern-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.