An Iraqi Kurd helps block a road during a demonstration against the fuel crisis in Irbil, Iraq, on Sunday. In Irbil, a city controlled by ethnic Kurds, lines stretched for miles at gas stations for weeks causing demonstrations. (The Associated Press)
BAGHDAD — The leader of Iraq's Kurdish north called on lawmakers in the self-rule region's parliament to take the necessary steps toward holding a referendum on independence, a move that would likely spell the end of a unified Iraq.
Iraq's largely autonomous Kurdish territory has long been a beacon of stability and prosperity, while much of the rest of the country has been mired in violence and political turmoil. But the Sunni insurgent blitz that has engulfed Iraq in recent weeks has provided an opening to Iraq's Kurds to seize long-disputed territory and a better chance than ever of achieving the goal of their own country.
Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, told the region's legislature in a speech Thursday 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 there will be? For this, you have to study this issue and take steps in this direction. It is time to decide about our self-determination and not to wait for other people to decide about us
Barzani spoke behind closed doors. The Associated Press obtained a video and audio of the address.
The Kurdish region's militia, known as peshmerga, has seized territory in recent weeks, including the city of Kirkuk and the surrounding oil-rich area, amid the chaos of the Sunni militant offensive, led by the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
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. The official said countries in the region are nervous about their security and are moving to protect their borders.
The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly so spoke on condition of anonymity.
In northern Iraq, the militants released 32 Turkish truck drivers who were captured when the extremists overran the city of Mosul, Turkey's foreign minister said.
Speaking to reporters in Ankara, Ahmet Davutoglu said the truckers were heading toward Irbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, and would be flown later to Turkey.
The drivers were well, although one may need special treatment, he added, without elaborating or giving any details about their release.
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 the city.
Davutoglu said efforts were underway to secure the release of the Turks still in captivity.
"The critical process continues," he said. "Our prayers and our efforts will go on for the rest of them and, God willing, we will share such good news about them too as soon as possible."
The militants' takeover of Mosul was the opening act of a bold offensive that has brought much of northern and western Iraq under their control. The assault has eased in recent days since encountering stiffer resistance in Shiite majority areas.
The rapid pace of the advance took the Iraqi government and international community by surprise, as the country's military melted away in the face of the onslaught.
It also left 46 Indian nurses stranded at a hospital in the militant-held northern city of Tikrit. The nurses are safe but are being forced to move to a new 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 on Thursday as rival factions gave up the fight, Syrian activists said.
The new developments effectively expand and consolidate areas held by the group -- which has shorted its name to the Islamic State -- in territory straddling the border between the two conflict-ridden countries.
Frazer reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press writers Mehmet Guzel in Istanbul, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Barbara Surk in Beirut contributed to this report.