Political crisis escalates in Iraq's Kurdistan region

Iraq's Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani speaks to the media after voting in Arbil, capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region, about 350 km (217 miles) north of Baghdad, September 21, 2013. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

By Isabel Coles ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - The prime minister of Iraqi Kurdistan removed four ministers from his cabinet on Monday and the speaker of parliament was barred from entering the capital in an escalating political crisis that threatens to destabilize the region. The parliament speaker and ministers are all members of the Gorran party, which the dominant Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) accuses of orchestrating violent protests that resulted in five deaths. The unrest is the most serious the relatively peaceful region has seen in years and could undermine its effectiveness in the war against Islamic State, in which it is a key ally of the U.S.-led coalition. The ministers of religious affairs, finance, trade, and peshmerga forces on Monday met Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani who "asked them to leave their posts", Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) spokesman Safeen Dizayee told Reuters. "These measures were primarily to contain the situation," Dizayee said, adding that the prime minister, who is also vice president of the KDP, would designate existing members of the cabinet to fill the now-vacant posts on a temporary basis. Earlier on Monday, parliament speaker Yousif Mohammed said security forces loyal to the KDP had turned him back on the road to Erbil, where the parliament is located, describing the act as a "coup". "The Kurdistan region is heading towards a much worse situation," Mohammed said in a news conference upon his return to the city of Sulaimaniyah, where Gorran is headquartered. Relations between the parties that make up the KRG have come under increasing strain over the presidency of Massoud Barzani, whose mandate expired on Aug. 20. Gorran is one of four parties demanding a reduction of the president's powers as a condition for extending his term, but the KDP, which is led by Barzani, has resisted. The stalemate has compounded an economic crisis that sent people onto the streets in protest. The demonstrations turned violent last week with protesters attacking and torching several KDP offices across Sulaimaniyah province. The crisis is reinforcing old divisions in the region, which used to have two separate administrations, one based in Erbil and the other in Sulaimaniyah. The KDP has vacated some of its offices in Sulaimaniyah in recent days and shut down offices of Gorran's TV channel KNN in the cities of Erbil and Duhok. The offices of Sulaimaniyah-based Kurdish media network NRT were also raided by KDP security services who forced its staff out of Erbil province over the weekend, but on Monday, the channel said it had been given permission to re-open. (Reporting by Isabel Coles; Editing by Alison Williams)