Iraqi Kurdistan is prepared to strike militants anywhere, including neighbouring Syria, but the Kurds must avoid being drawn into its civil war, the autonomous region's president Massud Barzani told AFP.
Barzani's remarks came after militants carried out a late-September attack on a security service headquarters in the Kurdish region's capital Arbil, killing seven people -- a rare occurrence in an area usually spared the violence plaguing other parts of Iraq.
"We will not hesitate in directing strikes (against) the terrorist criminals in any place," Barzani said in an exclusive interview with AFP, when asked about the possibility of Kurdish action against militants in Iraq or Syria.
"Our duty is to protect the Kurds if we are able," he said.
But the long-time Kurdish leader made a distinction between that and being drawn into Syria's bloody civil war, which he said the Kurds must try to avoid.
"Our opinion is that the Kurds must stand at the same distance" from all parties in the conflict, so "the Kurdish people are not forced into a war" from which they will gain nothing, Barzani said.
But Syrian Kurdish forces have already been drawn into the fighting, clashing with jihadist groups fighting President Bashar al-Assad's troops, who want to secure a land corridor connecting them to Iraq.
The violence has pushed tens of thousands of Syrian Kurds across the border, seeking refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan.
And Barzani has previously threatened to intervene in the Syrian conflict to protect Kurdish civilians, although officials have since backtracked on his remarks.
Barzani also said in the interview that Iraqi Kurdistan had provided military training to Syrian Kurds so they could defend their communities -- the first public acknowledgement that this was done.
"A number of young (men) were trained, but truly not with the aim of entering the war," Barzani said.
In claiming the September 29 attack in Arbil, which killed seven security force personnel and wounded more than 60 people, Al-Qaeda front group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant also pointed to Syria.
The group said the attack on the Kurdish asayesh security service headquarters with suicide bombers, gunfire and car bombs was in response to Barzani's alleged willingness to provide support to the government in Baghdad and to Kurdish forces battling jihadists in Syria.
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The attack was the first of its kind to hit Arbil since May 2007, when a truck bomb exploded near the same headquarters, killing 14 people and wounding more than 80.
Violence not the way to Kurdish statehood
Barzani also discussed the future of the Kurdish people, saying that they have a right to self-determination and statehood, but that this will not be accomplished through violence.
It is "a natural right for there to be a state for the Kurdish people, but this will not be achieved by violence, and must be done in a natural way," Barzani said.
This "age is the age of understanding, and we encourage dialogue between the Kurds and... the states" where Kurdish populations live, he said.
Four countries -- Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran -- host major Kurdish populations, which have faced decades of discrimination.
In Iraq, the Kurds now have a three-province autonomous region in the country's north with its own government, security forces, flag and borders.
Although Kurdistan and the federal government in Baghdad moved to reduce high tensions earlier this year, they are still at odds over a number of issues.
Iraqi Kurdistan has sought to establish a pipeline that would give it access to international energy markets, sent crude across the border to neighbouring Turkey, and signed deals with foreign energy firms.
It has also capitalised on its reputation for greater safety and stability, as well as a faster-growing economy than the rest of Iraq, to solicit investment independent of the federal government.
All this has angered Baghdad, and the two sides are also locked in a protracted dispute over the Kurds' long-standing demands for the incorporation of other traditionally Kurdish-majority areas into their autonomous region.
Barzani also said that political disputes and rampant violence that is killing hundreds of people in Iraq each month will likely not be resolved before parliamentary elections next year.
"I do not believe that the fundamental problems will be resolved until these elections," Barzani said, adding that "there is real fear ... that the conflicts will develop into a civil war."