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ARBIL Iraq (Reuters) - The president of Iraq's autonomous Kurdish north asked the region's parliament on Thursday to prepare the way for a referendum on independence, according to lawmakers who attended the closed session.

Iraq's five million Kurds, who have ruled themselves within Iraq in relative peace since the 1990s, have expanded their territory by up to 40 percent in recent weeks as Sunni Islamist militants seized vast stretches of western and northern Iraq.

Though calls for a referendum on independence are not new - Kurds strongly backed independence in a 2005 non-binding vote - the dramatic change in the situation on the ground means the Kurds now see a fully sovereign state as within their grasp.

"The president asked us to form an independent electoral commission to carry out a referendum in the Kurdistan region and determine the way forward," said lawmaker Farhad Sofi, a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

President Massoud Barzani did not offer a timetable on the proposed commission's work of organising a referendum, several Kurdish lawmakers told Reuters. They said Barzani had asked parliament to choose a date for the vote.

The United States has urged Barzani to stick with Baghdad, though the Kurdish leader said during a meeting last month with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that it was "very difficult" to imagine Iraq staying together.

Referring to the seizure of disputed territory in Kirkuk by Kurdish forces known as the 'peshmerga', Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki accused the Kurds on Wednesday of "exploiting current events in order to impose a reality" and called the move unacceptable.

(Reporting by Isabel Coles; Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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