The leader of the Kurdish region in the north of Iraq threatened secession Sunday as a dispute over flying the Iraqi flag intensified.

Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish region, on Friday ordered the country's national flag to be replaced with the Kurdish one. His decision sparked harsh words in Baghdad.

"If we want to separate, we will do it, without hesitation or fears," Barzani said during an address to parliament.

FOX CountryWatch: Iraq

He tempered his comments slightly by saying that Kurdish leaders have already voted to remain in a united Iraq, but his statement was likely to inflame government leaders in Baghdad, who fear the Kurds are pushing for independence from the rest of Iraq.

The Kurdish region gradually has been gaining more autonomy since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, a worrying development to many Iraqi leaders, especially Sunni Arabs. If the Kurds were to become independent along with the Shiite majority in the oil-rich south, the Sunnis would be left with little more than date groves and sand.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued a terse statement Sunday saying that only the national flag should be hoisted throughout the country.

"The current Iraqi flag is the only one which must be hoisted on each bit of Iraq's land until a decision is adopted by the parliament according to the constitution," the statement from his office said. It did not directly mention the flag dispute.

On Saturday, Sunni Arab lawmaker Saleh al-Mutlaq slammed Barzani's decision.

"What will be taken by force today, will be returned by force another day," he said, without elaborating. "We can defend our dignity, our people and our land ... and no one should be under the illusion that he could take a tiny bit of somebody else's land."

Speaking to parliament, Barzani said the national flag does not represent Iraqis. He said the Kurds would use an early version of the Iraqi flag that was flown after the end of the monarchy in 1958.

The Kurdish area had been out of Saddam Hussein's control since the 1991 Gulf War, when the Kurds set up their autonomous region under the protection of U.S. and British warplanes. After the U.S.-led invasion, Kurdistan was the only region that did not witness major changes.

Iraq's new constitution recognizes Kurdish self-rule and provides a legal mechanism for other areas to govern themselves but within the Iraqi state.