by Xinhua writers Fu Yiming and Gao Shan
ARBIL, Iraq, July 25 (Xinhua) -- Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region started its general elections on Saturday amid a simmering land and oil controversy that may endanger security in Iraq.
While Kurdish people are longing for their independence, recent escalating tension between Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and the Baghdad central government overshadowed its outlook.
Last month, the KRG parliament in Arbil approved a new draft constitution for their autonomous region, legalizing its claims to the oil-rich Kirkuk as well as other disputed areas in Nineveh and Diyala Provinces.
Despite a delayed referendum -- generally regarded would pass by a majority -- the move, though condemned by Arabs as annexing disputed territories and a final secession.
"Kirkuk is Kurdish, like Arbil, Sulaimaniyah or Dohuk, and is part of Kurdistan," KRG President Massud Barzani said, "all of the historical and geographical documents prove this."
Back in Baghdad, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is already not on speaking terms with Massud Barzani. Iraqi political leaders have denounced the constitution as a step toward splintering Iraq.
"This lays the foundation for a separate state. It is not a constitution for a region," said Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni Arab member of the national Parliament, "it is a declaration of hostile intent and confrontation. Of course it will lead to escalation."
Multiple clashes between the Iraqi army and the Kurdish Peshmerga militia in disputed region of Nineveh and Diyala Provinces, highlighted since the summer of last year, almost resulted in military confrontations.
On August 10 last year, the central government deployed army forces to northern Diyala and ordered the Kurdish Peshmerga militia to withdraw within 24 hours. They even forced KRG staff out of their government buildings a week later, and triggered a final crossfire between the two sides in late September.
After the general elections of Iraq in January, some Kurd-dominant regions in Nineveh and Diyala Provinces rejected new officials close to Maliki government to take office, and the Peshmerga militia even blocked those officials out of towns.
The incident resulted into a massive troop deployment from the central government to disputed areas. If officials from both sides joined by U.S. counterparts had not sat together for negotiation, bloodshed might have well happened.
KRG President Barzani has said in public that military clashes may happen in some regions. Unsatisfied with the hard stance of Maliki's central government, some Kurdish officials even called Maliki "another Saddam."
As both sides get more impatient, little room seems to be left for compromise, and chances for violence are mounting.
U.S. diplomats and military officials have repeatedly warned the potential for a confrontation between Iraqi central government and the KRG, which is emerging as "a threat as worrisome to Iraq's fate as the remnants of the insurgency."
The complication between Iraqi central government and the KRG involves many ethnic, territorial and international factors that may jeopardize the hard-gained security improvement in Iraq -- a sign that worries all -- if the confrontation upgrades further.
An expanded Kurdistan secession may trigger the string effects in neighboring countries like Turkey and Iran, which are all against Kurdish independence on their territories. Even Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, as a Kurd, said earlier this year that an independent Kurdish state is just a dream and won't happen.
With the back of the United States, the United Nations has proposed a compromise solution in which Kirkuk would be given a special status with links to both the central government and the KRG. But so far the proposal has failed to win much favor from either side.
During a visit to Washington on Thursday, Maliki acknowledged that these tensions were among "the most dangerous challenges that have been a concern for all the Iraqi government." But he said such controversies in politics could only be solved through constitutional means, instead of force.
Special Report: Tension escalates in Iraq