BAGHDAD — The Kurdish regional government responded Thursday to harsh criticism from Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, saying its ministers would boycott Cabinet meetings, demanding an apology to the Iraqi people and calling on al-Maliki to step down.
The political fissure was exacerbated after al-Maliki on Wednesday accused the Kurds of turning their regional capital into the headquarters of the Islamic State and harboring members of the Baath party of former President Saddam Hussein and other opponents of the Iraqi government.
The Iraqi government halted all cargo flights to Kurdistan on Thursday, said Capt. Nasser al-Bandar, head of civil aviation in the Iraqi government. Kurdistan responded by halting its cargo flights to Baghdad, he said.
Iraq has also notified the United Nations that Sunni militants from the Islamic State had seized nuclear material from a university in Mosul last month as they advanced toward Baghdad, the U.N.’s nuclear regulatory body said Thursday.
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Gill Tudor, a spokeswoman for the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said the organization’s experts believed the material — thought to be uranium — was “low grade and would not present a significant safety, security or nuclear-proliferation risk.”
Word of the seizure first emerged in a letter to the U.N. dated Tuesday and seen by reporters from Reuters, which quoted it as saying that Islamic State “terrorists” had taken control of the materials.
The letter said almost 90 pounds of uranium compounds had been kept at the university and that the materials “can be used in manufacturing weapons of mass destruction,” Reuters said.
The theft has not caused alarm in the safeguards division of the IAEA, said a diplomat there who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“This seems to be a reagent used in teaching,” the diplomat said, adding it was a relatively small amount of material that could “fit in a bucket.”
Tudor said Thursday the atomic-energy agency “is aware of the notification from Iraq and is in contact to seek further details.” She said experts did not believe that the material could be fashioned into a weapon.
Al-Malik had asked the Kurds Wednesday to “stop the operations room for” the Islamic State. He implied the Kurds had assisted the Sunni militants who swept into northern Iraq and seized territory in June.
Kurdistan is a semiautonomous region encompassing three provinces in northern Iraq. The Kurds are represented in the Iraqi Parliament and hold offices in the Shiite-led national government, including president, foreign minister, trade minister and health minister.
However, they also have their own Parliament and regional government, and have foreign missions in several countries.
“He has become hysterical and has lost his balance,” the Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani, said, referring to al-Maliki. “He is doing everything he can to justify his failures and put the blame on others.”
Many Iraqis believe the Kurds used the push by the Islamic State — and the ensuing security vacuum after many Iraqi troops fled the fighting — to seize control of the oil-rich Kirkuk region, as well as towns in the northern part of Diyala province and a number of border villages where there are substantial Kurdish-speaking populations. The Kurds believe these areas are part of their domain.
Relations between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdish region have been deteriorating for months, with the central government refusing to pay salaries of Kurdish government employees because the Kurds have been trying to export oil independently.
In his statement, Barzani noted the Kurdish region and its capital, Irbil, had once been a haven for al-Maliki, and said it was al-Maliki who had ceded ground to the Islamic State militants, not the Kurds. However, many opponents of the al-Maliki government have also found refuge in Kurdistan, including many Sunnis who are insisting that al-Maliki, a Shiite, step down.