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Iraq govt calls for calm as Kirkuk row intensifies

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq’s government called for calm on Friday to dampen a bitter row over the status of Kirkuk, a day after Kurdish councilors called for the city to become part of the largely autonomous region of Kurdistan.

The government rejected the move, insisting control of the disputed oil-rich city in northern Iraq would be decided through political consensus with the city’s other ethnic groups.

Thursday’s decision by Kurdish councilors at a provincial council meeting was symbolic because other factions boycotted the session. The council’s head, himself a Kurd, also noted the call was unconstitutional.

But tensions have been rising over the city’s fate, with demonstrators taking to the streets several times this week.

“The Iraqi government calls upon all parties and factions to be calm, wise and to resort to the constitution,” a statement from government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said.

He said all sides should not allow Iraq’s “enemies” to make use of the situation. Al Qaeda has sought to exploit the divisions in the city to fan tensions.

A suicide bomber killed 23 people at a rally in Kirkuk on Monday against a provincial elections law that would delay voting in the city, a mix of Kurds, Arabs and ethnic Turkmen.

The prime minister of neighboring Turkey, Tayyip Erdogan, told Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani late on Thursday of his “anxiety” over the Kurdish councilors’ call.

Kurds consider Kirkuk -- which sits atop one of Iraq’s key oil producing areas -- their ancient capital, but Arabs and Turkmen want the city to stay under central government control.

It lies just outside the largely autonomous Kurdistan region. The Kurdish councilors on Kirkuk’s provincial council want the city and the surrounding province -- which some Iraqis also call Kirkuk -- to be included in Kurdistan.

The United States also expressed concern about the tensions.

“Individuals or groups in Kirkuk should avoid any sort of unilateral or provocative action ... And what is needed is passage of a provincial election law,” U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters on Thursday.

The electoral law outlines procedures for provincial elections due to be held late this year or early 2009, but political wrangling over Kirkuk has delayed its ratification.

The bill would have delayed voting in Kirkuk, fixed seat allocations to each ethnic group and replaced Kurdish Peshmerga security forces with soldiers from other parts of Iraq, all measures Kurds reject.

Kurdish deputies boycotted a parliamentary session that passed the provincial elections law late last month, prompting Talabani, a Kurd, to reject the bill on grounds it was passed in the absence of a major parliamentary faction.

The bill has now returned to parliament, where lawmakers must reach a compromise. Parliamentarians will hold a special session on Sunday to try to resolve their differences after parliament broke for its summer recess on Wednesday.

Writing by Mohammed Abbas: Editing by Samia Nakhoul