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Iraq's top diplomat replaced, sources say

By Hamdi Alkhshali and Michael Martinez, CNN
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri July 11, 2014
Hoshyar Zebari is shown in Baghdad on June 23. A Prime Minister's adviser will be interim foreign minister, officials say.
Hoshyar Zebari is shown in Baghdad on June 23. A Prime Minister's adviser will be interim foreign minister, officials say.
  • Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, was removed from his post, officials say
  • His ouster comes as Kurds boycott the government
  • Kurds are angered by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's comments linking ISIS to Kurds
  • A Kurd official says al-Maliki is trying to create an Arab-Kurd conflict as a diversion

Baghdad, Iraq (CNN) -- In a possible portent of growing factional conflict, a leading Kurdish minister was removed from Iraq's government, and the Kurdish semi-autonomous government took over two oilfields in the north, officials said Friday.

Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, the face of Iraqi diplomacy for a more than a decade, was removed Friday by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, two senior Iraqi government officials said.

Zebari's ouster occurred as Kurds in Iraq's government launched a boycott followed comments made Thursday by al-Maliki, who purportedly linked ISIS extremists and Baathists to the Kurdish Regional Government in Irbil.

The Kurds strongly dispute al-Maliki's allegations and say he wants to scapegoat the Kurds for his failures in northern Iraq and divert attention from how ISIS militants have poured into Iraq and waged warfare against the government, a senior Kurdish official said.

The senior Kurdish official accused al-Maliki of trying to turn a conflict between al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government and Sunnis -- some of whom have supported the extremists from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria -- into a dispute between Arabs and Kurds.

Appointed as interim foreign minister was Hussain Shahristani, a Shiite and an al-Maliki adviser who is deputy prime minister for energy affairs, two senior Iraqi government officials said. The officials told CNN that Zebari was replaced after Kurdish ministers boycotted Cabinet meetings.

CNN was not able to reach anyone at the Prime Minister's office for comment.

Oil field seizures

Meanwhile, the Kurds' Peshmerga forces on Friday seized two oilfields -- one medium-sized and the other small -- though the fields weren't under any threat from ISIS, a Kurdish government source said.

The Kurds took the oilfields after accusing Iraq's Ministry of Oil of trying to "sabotage the recent mutually-agreed pipeline infrastructure linking the Avana dome with the Khurmala field" in northern Iraq, the Kurdish Regional Government said.

That new pipeline was to help increase revenues for Iraq "at a time of great need and at a time when most of the Iraq-Turkey pipeline is under ISIS control," the Kurdish government said.

The Kurdish government accused Baghdad of ordering officials not to use the new pipeline to export oil and instead to re-inject the oil back into an unused field in Kirkuk in the north.

"This politically motivated decision risked causing great damage to the field in question with a permanent loss of most of the oil that has been re-injected. It has also deprived the people of Iraq of much-needed oil export revenue," the Kurdish government said.

"This morning's events have shown that the (Kurdish Regional Government) is determined to protect and defend Iraq's oil infrastructure whenever it is threatened by acts of terrorism or, as in this case, politically motivated sabotage," the Kurdish government said.

Despite being unable to export, the Avana and Makhmour fields were producing about 110,000 barrels of oil per day, the Kurdish government said.

Baghdad and Irbil have long been at odds, especially over Article 140 of the 2005 Iraqi Constitution. The document called for a referendum that never happened: the vote was supposed to have determined the final status of several disputed areas such as Kirkuk and small villages in Nineveh, Diyala and Salaheddin claimed by the central government and the Kurdistan government.

Baghdad often accuses Irbil of signing illegal oil deals.

A minister since the U.S. invasion

As a leading Kurdish and government figure in Iraq, Zebari had been Iraq's foreign minister since 2003, after the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein, according to his profile on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs website.

Before that, he was involved in the Kurdish resistance against the Hussein regime, and he was head of the Kurdish Democratic Party's international relations bureau.

His ouster came as Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani called on all Kurdish members of the Iraqi parliament and Kurdish ministers in the Iraqi government to return to the Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, said Khasro Goran, a leader in the KDP Kurdish Party.

Goran, also head of the KDP bloc in the Iraqi parliament, added that no Kurdish member of parliament will attend Sunday's parliament session called for by the caretaker speaker of parliament, Mehdi al-Hafez.

Goran also told CNN that the Kurdish ministers in the Iraqi government will not participate in Cabinet meetings for the time being.

Kurdish participation in Iraq's government formation will depend on the outcome of the decisions made by the Kurdish alliance in Irbil, a senior Kurdish official told CNN.

Last month, Barzani gave his strongest-ever indication that the Kurdish region would seek formal independence from the rest of Iraq, he told CNN.

"Iraq is obviously falling apart," Barzani said. "The time is here for the Kurdistan people to determine their future and the decision of the people is what we are going to uphold."

Iraqi Kurdish independence has long been something of a dream, and the region has had semi-autonomy from Baghdad for more than two decades.

But Iraq's latest crisis, in which Sunni extremists have captured a large swath of Iraqi territory on the border of Iraqi Kurdistan, seems to have pushed the Kurds over the edge.

"Now we are living [in] a new Iraq, which is different completely from the Iraq that we always knew, the Iraq that we lived in 10 days or two weeks ago," Barzani said last month.

MAPS: Understanding the Iraq crisis

READ: Exclusive: Inside Baghdad hospital, harrowing tales from the front line

READ: As Iraq burns, what are leaders doing?

CNN's Arwa Damon contributed to this report.

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