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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.
With its own oil resources, the Kurdish region has long had a contentious relationship with Baghdad, with disputes over a range of issues including how to share the revenue. In May, the Kurdish government sold oil independent of the central government for the first time, shipping about 1.05 million barrels to Turkey. In retaliation, Baghdad stopped giving the Kurds the share of the central budget they are entitled to receive.
The border of the Kurdish self-rule region is another point of contention. The Kurds say they have tried for years to get Baghdad to agree on where to draw the frontier, but the central government has dragged its feet. They point to a constitutional amendment requiring that Kirkuk's fate be decided by referendum, but it has never been implemented.
While the Sunni militants' offensive may have turned the situation in the Kurds' favor, there is still significant opposition to changing the status quo.
Kurdish independence is opposed by the U.S., as well as by Iraq's regional neighbors, Turkey and Iran - both of whom have large Kurdish minority populations.
"Iraq is divided. We have got a new reality," Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff to Barzani, told reporters Thursday. He was in Washington to update senior Obama administration officials on Kurdish aspirations for "self-determination."
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday that "a united Iraq is a stronger Iraq." She said the country's leaders should focus on the insurgency instead of drawing new borders, "and we should not give an opening to a horrific terrorist group by being divided at this critical moment."
The prospect of Kurdish independence is just one of the ripple effects caused by the stunning rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the extremist group that has carved out a large chunk of territory spanning the Syria-Iraq border. It has declared an Islamic state in the area.
The jihadi group's growing strength has caused jitters across the region, particularly in neighboring Jordan, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
A U.S. defense official said Thursday that Saudi troops are massing along its border with Iraq in response to the extremist group's advance toward the kingdom's frontier. Countries in the region are nervous about their security and are moving to protect their borders, said the official, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.
U.S. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the U.S. is not close to launching a military assault against the insurgents, but "may get to that point" if they become a threat to the American homeland.
Dempsey said he does not believe the U.S., at this point, needs to send in an "industrial strength" force with a mountain of supplies to bolster Iraqi troops, adding that the most urgent need is a political solution centered on a more inclusive Iraqi government.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said about 200 U.S. military advisers are in Iraq assessing the situation and they have opened a second joint operating center in the north in Irbil. The U.S. has more than 750 troops in Iraq, mainly providing security for the embassy and the airport.
In northern Iraq, the Sunni militants released 32 Turkish truck drivers who were captured when the extremists overran the city of Mosul last month. The truckers traveled to the capital of Iraq's Kurdish region before flying to southern Turkey.
Militants seized the truckers June 9 in Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city. Three days later, they took another 49 people from the Turkish consulate in Mosul. Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said efforts were underway to secure the release of the Turks still in captivity.
The militants' assault in Iraq has eased in recent days since encountering stiffer resistance in Shiite majority areas.
The rapid pace of the initial advance left 46 Indian nurses stranded at a hospital in the militant-held northern city of Tikrit, Saddam's hometown. The nurses are safe but are being forced to move to an area controlled by the militants, according to Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Syed Akbaruddin.
He also said 40 Indian construction workers abducted two weeks ago near Mosul were still being held, but were unharmed.
Across the border in Syria, meanwhile, the al-Qaida splinter group seized several towns and villages as well as the country's largest oil field Thursday as rival factions gave up the fight, Syrian activists said.
They said the jihadi group is in almost full control of a corridor stretching from the Syrian border town of Boukamal to the government-controlled provincial capital of Deir el-Zour to the northwest. Those gains in territory straddling the border between the two conflict-ridden countries effectively expand and consolidate areas held by the group - which has shortened its name to the Islamic State.
The majority of significant Syrian rebel brigades that have been fighting to overthrow President Bashar Assad have rejected the group's unilateral declaration of an Islamic state. The rebel groups, including the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, have battled the Sunni extremists since the beginning of the year. Nearly 7,000 people, mostly fighters, have died in the clashes.
However, the Nusra Front appears to be losing in Syria as fighters allied with powerful tribes in eastern Syria defect to al-Baghdadi's group.
Janssen reported from Irbil, Iraq. Associated Press writers Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, Mehmet Guzel in Istanbul, Lolita C. Baldor and Lara Jakes in Washington and Barbara Surk in Beirut contributed to this report.