IRAQ: The Iraqi Kurdish parliament prepared to vote on Friday on holding an independence referendum while keeping the door open for a last-minute compromise in the face of mounting opposition from Baghdad.
The parliament in the Kurdish regional capital of Arbil, northern Iraq, was to vote at 1600 GMT on a motion giving "a legal framework" to the September 25 referendum that has also stirred protests from neighbouring states, especially Turkey.
Washington, for its part, opposes the referendum on the grounds that it would weaken Arab-Kurdish joint military operations which have helped to send the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group into retreat in both Iraq and war-torn Syria.
The United States has proposed unspecified "alternatives" to which Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani has pledged to give a rapid response.
"If they have a stronger alternative to the referendum, the Kurdish leadership will look at it, but if they want to postpone the vote with no alternatives, we won't," Barzani, who set the referendum date in June, said on Thursday.
The parliament session will be its first in two years, while Barzani's mandate as president of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq officially expired in 2015.
The Kurdish leadership, made up of Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Iraq's former president Jalal Talabani, have maintained that the three-year-old battle to drive back IS has made it impossible to hold fresh elections.
Two opposition parties -- the independent Goran, which has 24 seats in the 111-seat parliament, and Jamaa Islamiya, which is close to Iran and holds six seats -- said they would boycott the session.
The session in Arbil will follow two anti-referendum votes which passed earlier this week in the national parliament in Baghdad, both of which were boycotted by Kurdish legislators.
Analysts say the referendum plan, which has stirred Arab-Kurdish ethnic tensions, could mark the end of an era of cooperation during which Baghdad and Arbil battled IS following its seizure of swathes of northern and western Iraq in the summer of 2014.
Turkey and Iran fear the referendum could stoke separatist aspirations among their own sizeable Kurdish minorities.
Ankara has warned of the "cost" to the Iraqi Kurds, whose economy is heavily dependent on oil exports via a pipeline running through Turkey to the Mediterranean.
- Communities taking up arms -
On Thursday, the Iraqi parliament fired the governor of the northern oil-rich province of Kirkuk, Najm Eddine Karim, over his provincial council's decision to take part in the non-binding Kurdish referendum.
The provincial council of the region disputed by Baghdad and Arbil is home to diverse communities, including Arabs and Turkmen who oppose the vote.
Regions such as Kirkuk are a highly sensitive issue in ethnically fragmented Iraq, with its Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad and large Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities.
In Kirkuk province, the different communities have been arming themselves while numerous paramilitary forces have taken up positions north and west of Baghdad as joint units advance against the retreating IS jihadists.
In the city of Kirkuk, Kurdish peshmerga fighters have taken charge of security, while Shiite paramilitary units have been deployed on the outskirts.
Hadi al-Ameri, head of the powerful Iranian-backed Badr organisation, has warned that the Kurdish referendum could lead to partition and civil war, vowing to defend the unity of Iraq.
Iraqi Kurdistan, whose people were brutally repressed under Saddam Hussein, won autonomy in 2005 following the dictator's ouster in a US-led invasion under a constitution which set up a federal republic in Iraq.
The referendum would "not necessarily lead to (an) immediate declaration of statehood, but rather to know the will and opinion of the people of Kurdistan about their future", Barzani said in February.
Kurdish leaders have since reiterated that a "yes" vote would pave the way for the start of "serious negotiations" with the Baghdad government.