BAGHDAD (AP) — The spokesman of Iraq's state-sanctioned militias on Thursday described the Kurdish leader behind last month's vote for independence as "worse" than the Islamic State group, but said the militias have no immediate plans to take military action.
Karim al-Nouri, spokesman for the Popular Mobilization Forces, accused the Kurdish regional president, Masoud Barzani, of behaving like the leader of a fifth column during the war against IS.
Barzani "is more dangerous than Daesh because he comes from within Iraq," said al-Nouri, using the Arabic term for IS.
Last month's non-binding referendum, in which more than 90 percent voted for independence, escalated long-running tensions between the autonomous Kurdish region and the central government over the sharing of oil wealth and the fate of disputed territories like the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which is held by Kurdish forces but lies outside their autonomous zone.
The PMF consists of mainly Shiite Arab militias, many of which are backed by neighboring Iran. Iraq, Iran and neighboring Turkey have all rejected the referendum and insist Iraq's borders will not be redrawn.
Al-Nouri accused Kurdish forces known as the peshmerga of "occupying" ethnically mixed Kirkuk and "stealing the oil wells." The peshmerga assumed control of Kirkuk in the summer of 2014, when the Islamic State group swept across northern Iraq and the Iraqi military crumbled.
"Anyone occupying Iraqi land must be thrown out. We do not discriminate between Daesh and anyone else in this manner," al-Nouri told The Associated Press.
He said the militias have no immediate plans to move on the city, and would follow orders from Baghdad. But other commanders suggested clashes were on the horizon.
"I think Kirkuk will stay Iraqi, and there will be a major sacrifice to retake Kirkuk, after the approval of the Iraqi government," said Rayan al-Kaldani, commander of the Babylon Movement, a Christian militia in the PMF.
Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has ruled out military action in response to the referendum, but has also said he will deploy Iraqi forces in response to any violence.
Vice President Ayad Allawi warned Monday there could be "civil war" over the city if the two sides failed to show restraint.
The peshmerga closed roads to Kirkuk early Thursday after Kurdish authorities warned that Baghdad was moving forces in the direction of the city. They reopened them later in the day.
A leading official of a Kurdish opposition party offered late Thursday to dissolve the Kurdish administration of Kirkuk and enter into "unconditional negotiations" with Baghdad over the city. Kirkuk's governor belongs to the party, known as the PUK.
Befal Talabani, son of the late Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, said he wanted to avoid war with the Iraqi central government. Talabani's PUK is an archrival of Barzani's KDP party and enjoys good relations with Iran.
Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasool, spokesman for Iraq's central military command, said there were no unusual troop movements near Kirkuk. He said the military was redeploying in the direction of the western Anbar province, the last holdout of IS militants in Iraq.
PMF militia forces are no more than 60 kilometers (40 miles) east and south of Kirkuk, according to al-Nouri.
In comments directed to a Kurdish reporter Thursday, he said: "If a little boy who is playing with a match next to a tank of gasoline, and the gasoline explodes, is it the gasoline's fault?"