Kurdistan leader vows to defend claims over disputed city

KIRKUK, Iraq Mon Dec 10, 2012 1:42pm EST

Kurdish Regional Government President Masoud Barzani speaks during an interview with Reuters in Arbil, about 350 km (220 miles) north of Baghdad November 30, 2011. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari

Kurdish Regional Government President Masoud Barzani speaks during an interview with Reuters in Arbil, about 350 km (220 miles) north of Baghdad November 30, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Azad Lashkari

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KIRKUK, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraqi Kurdistan's president vowed to protect Kurdish interests during a visit to the city of Kirkuk on Monday, in a show of defiance of Iraq's central government over disputed territory and oil.

Tensions are running high between autonomous Kurdistan and Baghdad after both sent troops to reinforce areas along their disputed internal border, bringing them close to confrontation in their long-running feud.

Dressed in military uniform and flanked by troops, Kurdistan's President Masoud Barzani visited Kurdish-controlled areas of Kirkuk, a city long seen as a flashpoint for Arab-Kurdish tensions after the U.S. military withdrawal a year ago.

"Kurds, throughout history, did not choose war as a means, but this does not mean they will sit handcuffed in the face of oppression," he said on the outskirts of Kirkuk.

"We are against the war and we do not like war, but if things come to war, then all Kurdish people are ready to fight in order to preserve the Kurdish identity of Kirkuk."

Barzani's sensitive visit and tough rhetoric come as U.S. officials try to negotiate an end to the military standoff that began last month when Baghdad and Kurdistan both sent troops to reinforce positions around cities on their internal border.

Although outside the three northern Iraqi provinces run by Kurdistan, Kirkuk has historically been claimed by the Kurdish region. A census to determine whether the city has a Kurdish or Arab majority has long been delayed.

Kirkuk sits on some of the world's largest oil reserves and fields around the city produce about a fifth of Iraq's total crude exports of 2.6 million barrels per day.

American troops acted as a buffer between the two regions until their departure. Since then, the federal government and Kurdistan have increasing sparred over control of land and oil.

Kurdistan relies on the central government for its share of the national budget. But tensions have grown since the Kurdish region signed deals with major oil firms like Exxon and Chevron to develop its oilfields, a move Baghdad sees as an unconstitutional challenge to the central government.

(Writing by Patrick Markey; editing by Andrew Roche)

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