BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has said he wants to see local polls held in the ethnically divided province of Kirkuk before January's general elections, but difficulties are holding it up.
Minority Kurds see the city of Kirkuk and its surrounding province, which produces one-fifth of Iraq's oil, as their ancient capital. They want it included in their semi-autonomous region to the north, an idea the city's Turkmen and Arabs reject.
So sensitive is the issue that officials were forced to exempt Kirkuk from Iraq's provincial elections on January 31 because rival lawmakers could not agree on how to treat it, with the promise it would hold special elections at a later date.
"We are working for an election in Kirkuk before the parliamentary elections, but there will be difficulties. We need to open up all the [rival] factions to each other if we are to achieve provincial council elections before the parliamentary vote," Maliki said in a statement on his website.
Iraqis are due to vote in a national election in January.
The dispute between the Kurds and the Shi'ite Arab-led government in Baghdad over territory and oil is seen as the leading threat to Iraq's long term to stability.
The sectarian violence triggered by the U.S.-led invasion has ebbed.
"Kirkuk's problem cannot be solved by using force...[but] by understanding," Maliki said.