By staff and agencies

Storm clouds gather over Iraqi Kurdish referendum as tension rise

September 25, 2017 - 10:53

There are conflicting reports as to whether a referendum on possible secession of the Iraqi Kurdistan on Monday will go ahead as planned after several regional officials warned the vote could have serious consequences. 

A delegation from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) traveled to Baghdad on Saturday for talks with the Iraqi government and unconfirmed reports said Kurdish leaders had accepted to stay the plebiscite.   

Iraqi Kurdish Leader Massoud Barzani also delayed a scheduled news conference on the referendum as international pressure mounted for a postponement.

However, the high council for referendum affairs which is supervised by Barzani, rejected reports of a postponement as rumors, the Kurdistan 24 broadcast news station said.

Iraq's government has called the referendum unconstitutional, with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi rejecting it, “whether today or in the future.” Abadi has even threatened military intervention in case the vote leads to violence.

The planned referendum has raised fears of a fresh conflict in the region which is trying to emerge from years of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Daesh) campaign of death and destruction. 

Last week, ethnic Turkmens in Kirkuk, which is a serious bone of contention in the dispute, clashed with Kurdish residents of the oil-rich city before more Peshmerga militants were deployed to rein in dissent. 

The situation in the multi-ethnic city north of Baghdad is reportedly tense and residents are stocking up with supplies in anticipation of a deterioration if the referendum goes ahead. Residents were quoted as saying that food prices have gone up by 20 percent. 

Kirkuk is not one of the three provinces that have been part of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq since 2003. However, Kurdish militants used a vacuum created by the flight of government troops in the face of an ISIL offensive to overtake the city of Kirkuk.  

The issue has even divided the Kurds, with two main Kurdish parties, Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP/Partiya Demokrat a Kurdistanê) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK/Yekêtiy Ni?tîmaniy Kurdistan) of Jalal Talabani differing on the referendum.

On Saturday, Iraq's Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Ja’afari addressed the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York, reiterating his government's opposition to the vote. He called it “unconstitutional and divisive,” and said the government wanted “to preserve the unity of Iraq.”

Iraq's Supreme Court has also ruled in favor of the vote’s suspension, and the Parliament has voted to reject it. 

Tension ahead of vote 

Meantime, hundreds demonstrated in eastern Iraq against a planned referendum on the secession of northern Iraq's Kurdish region, which neighboring countries and Western powers fear could break up the country and stir regional ethnic and sectarian conflict.

Protestors, who gathered outside the Baquba city council on Sunday, waved banners denouncing the September 25 vote and called on local authorities to ban the polls.

The non-binding referendum will see Iraqis in areas under the control of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) - and in a handful of territories disputed between Erbil and Baghdad - vote whether to secede from Iraq.

World condemnation 

The international community as well as regional countries are strongly opposed to the referendum, saying the partitioning of Iraq could start a fresh bout of violence in the region.

Along with Baghdad, Turkey, the United States, Iran, Syria and the United Nations have all spoken out against the poll, saying it will only distract from the ongoing fight against the ISIL terrorist outfit and further destabilize the region.

The Head of the United Nations Antonio Guterres says any unilateral decision by Iraqi Kurds to hold a referendum at this time would detract from the need to defeat the ISIL.

Condemning the vote as “provocative and destabilizing”, the U.S. has urged renewed negotiations. 

Some, western countries are backing a UN-supported “alternative” plan for immediate negotiations on future relations in exchange for dropping the referendum.

Ibrahim Kalin, the spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, wrote on Twitter on Saturday, “If the referendum is not canceled, there will be serious consequences.” 

Kurdish leaders, he wrote, “must immediately refrain from this terrible mistake which will trigger new crises in the region.”

However, Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish region since 2005, has resisted efforts by the UN, the U.S. and Britain to delay the referendum.

But Hoshyar Zebari, a senior advisor to Barzani, told Reuters news agency: “This is the last five meters of the final sprint and we will be standing our ground”.

Zebari, a member of the Kurdistan Region Referendum Council, has stressed that vote would not be postponed despite opposition from neighboring countries.

“The referendum does not mean the end of the world…It is a simple democratic process for the people of Kurdistan to express their will, to decide their future,” he said.

“We understand the misplaced concerns that [the referendum] might affect the fight against Daesh…The Kurdistan Region will be far more committed [in the battle against the terrorist group],” he added.

Many Kurds see the vote, though non-binding, as a historic opportunity to achieve self-determination a century after Britain and France divided the Middle East under the Sykes-Picot agreement.

More than 5.2 million people are registered to vote.

Turkey vows security, economic measures against Kurdish vote

Elsewhere, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim falls short of ruling out cross border operations if Iraq’s Kurdish region goes ahead with a planned independence vote.

“Naturally, it is a question of timing as to when security, economic and security options are implemented. Developing conditions will determine that,” said Yildirim on Saturday, in response to a reporter who asked if Turkey would engage in cross-border operations.

Yildirim blasted the referendum as “adventurism” that puts Turkey at risk.

“With our 80 million citizens and the 780,000sq km of our homeland, we will never tolerate any adventurism for our country's security or the welfare of our nation,” he told reporters in the central Anatolian province of Kirsehir.

Calling the referendum the “wrong decision,” Yildirim added: “As a neighboring country, Turkey has given the necessary warning in a friendly way since the beginning. But we see that these warnings have not been heeded.”

Meanwhile, the Turkish parliament has extended a mandate authorizing the deployment of the country’s military forces in Iraq and Syria.

The motion was backed by members of parliament (MPs) from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP/Adalet ve Kalk?nma Partisi), as well as the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP/Cumhuriyet Halk Partisi) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP/Milliyetçi Hareket Partisi). MPs from the People's Democratic Party (HDP/Halklar?n Demokratik Partisi) voted against it.

The mandate had previously allowed the Turkish military to carry out cross-border operations from October 2, 2016, until October 31, 2017.

Blast kills 4 Peshmergas in Iraq’s Kirkuk

Elsewhere On Saturday, four Iraqi Kurdish soldiers were killed in an explosion in the province of Kirkuk, an area where the referendum is set to be held, Iraqi police said.

Seven other Kurdish Peshmerga troops were injured in the blast that hit their patrol car, 250 kilometers north of the capital Baghdad, police added.

So far, there has been no claim of responsibility.

Kirkuk is the capital of the oil-rich province of the same name which is disputed by the federal government in Baghdad and the semi-autonomous region of Kurdistan.

Neighboring Turkey is holding army exercises on the border to underline its concerns that Iraqi Kurdish separatism could feed insurrection on its soil. 

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