Disputed Iraqi province votes to fly Kurdish flag

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Provincial councillors in disputed, oil-rich Kirkuk province voted Tuesday to fly the Kurdish regional flag over government buildings, a move likely to increase tensions with Baghdad.

Kirkuk is at the centre of a long-running dispute over northern territory between Kurdish authorities, who want to incorporate the land into their autonomous region, and the federal government in Baghdad.

"The Kirkuk provincial council voted today... to approve a proposal to raise the flag of the Republic of Iraq and the flag of Kurdistan over the government departments," Governor Najm al-Din Karim told journalists.

But only the 25 Kurdish provincial councillors backed the measure, while the 16 Arab and Turkmen members did not take part in the session.

"The majority voted to raise the flag and those who did not vote are our brothers and sisters and we will work to strengthen relations with them," Karim said.

The United Nations has already expressed concerns about the governor's decision to fly the Kurdish regional flag over the citadel in Kirkuk, warning against "unilateral steps" that could inflame tensions.

"The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) is concerned by the recent decision of the governor of Kirkuk to raise the flag of the Kurdistan region of Iraq over Kirkuk citadel," it said in a statement.

UNAMI "cautions against any unilater al steps that might jeopardise harmony and peaceful coexistence among many ethnic and religious groups that rightly call Kirkuk their home and want to live and work together," it said.

Iraqi Kurdish forces have been in control of much of Kirkuk province since 2014, when federal forces abandoned positions in the area during the Islamic State group's lightning offensive that June.

Southwestern Kirkuk, including the town of Hawijah, has been held by IS for more than two and a half years.

Kirkuk is home to various religious and ethnic communities, some which -- notably Arabs and Turkmen -- are not supportive of the province moving to permanent Kurdish control.

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