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Iraqi Kurds take control of northern oil fields, government says (+video)

Kurdish troops moved on two major oil fields near Kirkuk early Friday, according to the Iraqi Oil Ministry.

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Kurdish security forces take positions at Taza district, south of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Iraq, Friday, June 20, 2014.

Emad Matti/AP

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Kurdish security forces took over two major oil fields outside the disputed northern city of Kirkuk before dawn Friday, the Oil Ministry said, the latest move in a deepening a dispute with the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Oil Ministry spokesman Assem Jihad said Kurdish troops known as peshmerga also expelled the local workers from the Bai Hassan and Kirkuk oil fields. He declared the takeover "a violation to the constitution" and warned that it poses "a threat to national unity."

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There was no immediate comment from authorities in the Kurdish self-rule region of northern Iraq.

The already difficult relationship between the Kurds and Iraq's central government has sharply deteriorated in recent days. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused the Kurds of harboring the Sunni militants who have overrun much of the country over the past month. A day later, authorities suspended all cargo flights to the Kurdish region's two main airports.

The Kurds have responded by declaring their politicians will boycott Cabinet meetings and renewing demands that al-Maliki step down. The seizure of the two oil fields, however, is a decidedly bigger step, and could signal a quicker unraveling of relations between the Kurds and al-Maliki.