BAGHDAD - With large parts of Iraq in militant hands, a top Kurdish leader called on regional lawmakers Thursday to lay the groundwork for a referendum on independence, a vote that would likely spell the end of a unified Iraq.
The recent blitz by Sunni militants across much of northern and western Iraq has given the country's 5 million Kurds - who have long agitated for independence - their best chance ever to seize disputed territory and move closer to a decades-old dream of their own state.
But the Kurds still face considerable opposition from many in the international community, including the United States, which has no desire to see a fragmented Iraq.
A Western-established no-fly zone in 1991 helped the Kurds set up their enclave, which has emerged over the years as a beacon of stability and prosperity, while much of the rest of the country has been mired in violence and political turmoil. The three-province territory was formally recognized as an autonomous region within Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
Speaking to the regional legislature Thursday, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani, told lawmakers to set up an electoral commission to "hurry up" and prepare for "a referendum on self-determination."
"We will be in a better position and we will have better (political) weapons in our hands. But how we will do this?" he said. "What kind of steps will there be? For this, you have to study the issue and take steps in this direction. It is time to decide our self-determination and not wait for other people to decide for us."
Barzani spoke behind closed doors, but The Associated Press obtained a video of his address.
Kurdish leaders have threatened for years to hold an independence referendum, but those moves were often more about wresting concessions from the central government in Baghdad than a real push for statehood. The recent Sunni offensive has effectively cleaved the country in three, bringing the prospect of full independence within reach.
Kurdish fighters already have seized control of disputed territory - including the city of Kirkuk, a major oil hub. The Kurds say they only want to protect the areas from the Sunni militants. Many of the zones have considerable Kurdish communities that the Kurds have demanded be incorporated into their territory, making them unlikely to give them up.