BAGHDAD — The Kurdish regional government responded Thursday to harsh criticism from Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, announcing that its ministers would boycott Cabinet meetings, demanding an apology to the Iraqi people and calling on al-Maliki to step down.
The political fissure was exacerbated after al-Maliki on Wednesday accused the Kurds of turning their regional capital into the headquarters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, as well as harboring members of the Baath Party of former President Saddam Hussein and other opponents of the Iraqi government.
The Iraqi government halted all cargo flights to Kurdistan on Thursday, said Capt. Nasser al-Bandar, the head of civil aviation in the Iraqi government. Kurdistan had responded by halting its cargo flights to Baghdad, he said.
Iraq has also notified the United Nations that Sunni militants from ISIL had seized nuclear material from a university in the northern city of Mosul last month as they advanced toward Baghdad, the nuclear regulatory body of the U.N. said Thursday.
Gill Tudor, a spokeswoman for the International Atomic Energy Agency, which is based in Vienna, said in a statement that the organization’s experts believed that the material — thought to be uranium — was “low grade and would not present a significant safety, security or nuclear proliferation risk.”
Word of the seizure first emerged in a letter to the U.N. dated Tuesday and seen by reporters from Reuters, which quoted it as saying that “terrorists” from ISIL had taken control of the materials.
The letter said that almost 90 pounds of uranium compounds had been kept at the university and that the materials “can be used in manufacturing weapons of mass destruction,” Reuters said.
But the theft has not caused alarm in the safeguards division of the IAEA in Vienna, said a diplomat there who spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide information considered sensitive.
“This seems to be a re-agent used in teaching,” the diplomat said, adding that it was a relatively small amount of material that could “fit in a bucket.”
The mention of such weapons resonates in Iraq, where the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 was justified in Washington and London by assertions that Saddam Hussein, the leader at the time, had acquired weapons of mass destruction. None were ever found by the invading forces.
In her statement on Thursday, Tudor said that the atomic energy agency “is aware of the notification from Iraq and is in contact to seek further details.”
She said experts did not believe that the material could be fashioned into a weapon.
“Nevertheless,” the statement said, “any loss of regulatory control over nuclear and other radioactive materials is a cause for concern.”
Al-Maliki, the Iraqi leader, had asked the Kurds on Wednesday to “stop the operations room for ISIS,” using another acronym for the group. He implied that the Kurds had assisted the Sunni militants who swept into northern Iraq and seized territory in June, saying that the government had “diagnosed the internal and external parties who supported the conspiracy that took place in Iraq.”
Kurdistan is a semiautonomous region encompassing three provinces in northern Iraq. The Kurds are represented in the Iraqi Parliament and hold offices in the Shiite-led national government, including president, foreign minister, trade minister and health minister. However, they also have their own Parliament and regional government, and have foreign missions in several countries.
“He has become hysterical and has lost his balance,” the Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani, said in a statement, referring to al-Maliki. “He is doing everything he can to justify his failures and put the blame on others.”
Many Iraqis believe that the Kurds used the push by ISIL — and the ensuing security vacuum after many Iraqi government troops fled the fighting — to seize control of the oil-rich Kirkuk region, as well as towns in the northern part of Diyala province and a number of border villages where there are substantial Kurdish-speaking populations. The Kurds believe that these areas are part of their domain.
The back and forth is also part of a risky political calculation by al-Maliki and Barzani that each will garner points with his own loyalists by criticizing the other. Many Shiites feel betrayed by the Kurds after their seizure of Kirkuk and other border areas, and support al-Maliki’s accusations.
For their part, the Kurds believe that they are part of a movement to remove al-Maliki and that the tough talk will rally his opponents as well as reinforce the Kurdish position on Kirkuk.
Relations between the Iraqi central government and the Kurdish region have been deteriorating for months, with the central government refusing to pay salaries of Kurdish government employees because the Kurds have been trying to export oil independently.
In his statement, Barzani’s office noted that the Kurdish region and its capital, Irbil, had once been a haven for al-Maliki, and said it was al-Maliki who had ceded ground to the ISIL militants, not the Kurds. However, many opponents of the al-Maliki government have also found refuge in Kurdistan, including many Sunnis who are insisting that al-Maliki, a Shiite, step down.
“Kurdistan is proud that Irbil has always served as a refuge for oppressed people, including yourself when you fled the former dictatorship,” the statement said. “Now Irbil is a refuge for people fleeing from your dictatorship.”
A former speaker for the Kurdish Parliament in Irbil, Abdul Salam Barwari, expressed the long-held frustration of Kurds and Sunnis with al-Maliki’s policies, which they regard as discriminatory.
“We have sacrificed to hold Iraq together, while he breaks it apart,” he said.