Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki insisted Tuesday that Kirkuk had an Iraqi identity during a cabinet meet boycotted by Kurdish ministers whose autonomous region lays claim to the disputed city.
The meeting, the first of its kind to be held in the oil-rich and ethnically mixed northern city, came amid chilly ties between the central government and Kurdish authorities who are grappling with several unresolved issues.
"Kirkuk is special. It is special because it is a microcosm of Iraq," Maliki told ministers in a televised portion of the meeting. "In the truest meaning of the word, its identity is Iraqi."
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He added that, "this province will stay in this political, social and economic situation."
Maliki's remarks pointed to his opposition to allowing Kirkuk to be incorporated into Kurdistan's three-province northern region as Kurdish officials have called for and Baghdad has opposed.
Diplomats and analysts persistently point to the unresolved row as one of the biggest obstacles to Iraq's long-term stability.
No Kurdish cabinet ministers attended the meeting, apparently having been asked to stay away by the Kurdish regional government, according to two officials, one from the central government and the other Kurdish, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
There are several other ongoing disputes between the central government and Kurdish authorities, notably over oil revenues and the Kurds' refusal to hand over Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, who is accused by Baghdad of running death squads, accusations Hashemi says are politically-motivated.
Kurdish regional president Massud Barzani has also been critical of Maliki in recent weeks, repeatedly voicing concern over the prime minister's alleged centralisation of power.