Paris/Baghdad: French President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday called on Iraq to dismantle all militias, including the government sanctioned Iran-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), a rare public request to do so by a major Western leader.
Macron's call, which followed a meeting with Iraqi Kurdish leaders in Paris, underscores the tough balancing act Baghdad has to perform between its allies in the war on Islamic State, Iran and Western powers, which do not see eye to eye.
Iraqi Kurdish authorities accuse the majority PMF of widespread abuses against Kurds in ethnically-mixed regions.
The meeting with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and his deputy Qubad Talabani was the first high profile international meeting for the Kurdish leadership after a September 25 independence referendum.
"It is essential that there is a gradual demilitarisation, in particular of the Popular Mobilisation that established itself in the last few years in Iraq, and that all militias be gradually dismantled," he told a joint news conference held with Barzani and Talabani.
Macron called for dialogue in Iraq between the central government in Baghdad and the semi-autonomous KRG within the framework of the Iraqi constitution, saying he was convinced a "constructive dialogue" could lead to lifting Baghdad's restrictions on the Kurdish region.
Kurds voted overwhelmingly to break away from Iraq in the referendum, defying the central government in Baghdad and alarming neighbouring Turkey and Iran who have their own Kurdish minorities.
The Iraqi government responded by seizing the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk and other territory disputed between the Kurds and the central government. It also banned direct flights to Kurdistan and demanded control over border crossings.
Long-serving Kurdish president Masoud Barzani stepped down over the affair and the regional government led by his nephew Nechirvan has tried to negotiate an end to the confrontation.
The Kurdish prime minister said on Saturday he saw France playing a role to end the dispute with Baghdad and that his government respected a November 20 verdict by the Iraqi Supreme Federal Court ruling the referendum unconstitutional and its results void.
"With regards to the referendum, we are in a new era, and this issue is over and we have made our position in the Kurdistan Regional Government clear," Erbil-based broadcaster Rudaw, which is close to the KRG, quoted Barzani as saying.
Macron called for the long-delayed implementation of Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution to settle the status of territories disputed between Baghdad and the Kurds.
Article 140 provided for a referendum to be held by the end of 2007 in the oil region of Kirkuk and other territories claimed by both the KRG and the Iraqi government to determine whether their populations wanted to be part of the Kurdish region or not.
No such referendum took place, among the reasons cited by the KRG to unilaterally hold its referendum on independence.
Kurds say they formed a majority in these areas until the 1970s, when a campaign to uproot them and replace them by Arabs was carried out by Saddam Hussein's government.
The 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam paved the way for the Kurds to return to these regions.