SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq (AP) _ Kurdistan president Massoud Barzani has ordered the Iraqi national flag to be replaced with the Kurdish one in his northern autonomous region in what appeared to be another move toward more self-rule in the north, local officials said Friday.

The order was issued Thursday and applies to the Kurdish region, said Beshraw Ahmed, a spokesman for the Sulaimaniyah municipality.

According to Azad Jundiyanim, a member of President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in Sulaimaniyah, Barzani issued a formal message asking for the Iraqi flag to be lowered. The message was also broadcast on Kurdish radio.

Iraq's northern Kurdish region has slowly been gaining more autonomy since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

On May 7, its parliament in the northern city of Irbil unified the Kurdish region's two long-standing administrations, one headed by Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party and the other by Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Kurds had until then enjoyed self-rule in three provinces of the north but under the separate administrations.

Sunni Arabs fear that Kurds are pushing for secession under the nation's new federal system, a step which, if imitated by the Shiite majority in the oil-rich south, would leave Sunnis with little more than date groves and sand.

The Kurdish region 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.