Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani called on Saturday for the right to self-determination of the northern Iraqi region, a move that could lead to a breakup of the country.
His remarks come as Prime Minister-designate Nuri al-Maliki attempts to form a cabinet, with Barzani's bloc expected to obtain several ministerial posts, and the Kurdistan region mired in disputes with central government authorities in Baghdad over land and oil.
Speaking at a congress of his Kurdistan Democratic Party, Barzani said "the issue of self-determination," which was considered "a right," would be presented to those attending the conference "to be studied and discussed."
His comments mark the first time Barzani has officially presented the issue to the KDP's congress, with the proposal set to be voted on during the party's week-long meeting which opened Saturday.
They were made to an audience that included Maliki, President Jalal Talabani, a fellow Kurd, parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi and Iyad Allawi, whose Iraqiya bloc won the most seats in March elections.
Also during the gathering, the first of its kind since 1999, more than 1,000 congress members are to elect around 50 new members to the KDP's top leadership committee.
Maliki, who was awarded the premiership on November 25, has two more weeks in which he must form a cabinet. Iraq has been without a new government since the polls.
Barzani's KDP is a key member of Maliki's governing coalition, and the Kurdish leader played a major role in bringing Iraq's divided political factions together to agree a power-sharing deal.
Iraq's Kurdish north, made up of three provinces, has its own parliament and exerts control over all areas of policy except for national defence and foreign affairs.
It is currently in dispute with Iraq's central government in Baghdad over two main issues: a land dispute centred on the ethnically-mixed oil-rich city of Kirkuk; and the distribution of revenues from the region's energy reserves.
Irbil claims Kirkuk and parts of the three neighbouring provinces, and has attempted signing its own deals with international energy firms without consulting Baghdad, both of which central government authorities contest.
On the subject of Kirkuk, Barzani pointedly told the audience that "when it returns to the region... we will make Kirkuk an example of coexistence, forgiveness and joint administration, but we cannot bargain on its identity."
The region first attained a modicum of autonomy in 1974, but Barzani's father and then-leader of the KDP, Mulla Mustafa Barzani, returned to war with the Baghdad government rather than accept that limited autonomy.
Kurdistan won greater freedom after the 1991 Gulf War, but Barzani and Talabani, the region's other dominant political leader, waged war for control of smuggling routes that provided valuable tariff revenue while dictator Saddam Hussein was still in power.
A power-sharing deal was eventually struck between the two blocs and today, Barzani is seen as the dominant part .