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Iraq’s Kurds stick to independence vote despite US request to postpone it

President of Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (IKRG) Masoud Barzani (R) in Erbil, Iraq on 4 April 2017 [Yunus Keleş/Anadolu Agency]
President of Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (IKRG) Masoud Barzani (R) in Erbil, Iraq on 4 April 2017 [Yunus Keleş/Anadolu Agency]

Iraq’s Kurds are sticking to a plan to hold an independence referendum on September 25, despite a US request to postpone it, a high-ranking Kurdish official told Reuters on Saturday.

The United States and other Western nations are worried that the vote could ignite a fresh conflict with Baghdad and turn into another regional flashpoint. Turkey, Iran and Syria, which together with Iraq have sizeable Kurdish populations, all oppose an independent Kurdistan.

“The date is standing, September 25, no change,” said Hoshyar Zebari, a close adviser to Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani, after US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asked Barzani to postpone the referendum.

Tillerson made the request in a phone call with Barzani on Thursday, Zebari said.

A statement issued on Friday by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) presidency, after Tillerson’s call, said:

On the issue of the postponement of the referendum, the President (Barzani) stated that the people of the Kurdistan Region would expect guarantees and alternatives for their future

The US State Department said in June it was concerned that the referendum will distract from “more urgent priorities” such as the defeat of Daesh militants.

Daesh’s self-proclaimed “caliphate” effectively collapsed last month, when US-backed Iraqi forces completed the takeover of the militants’ capital in Iraq, Mosul, after a nine-month campaign in which Kurdish Peshmerga fighters took part.

Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government's peshmerga forces in Iraq on October 20, 2016. [Feriq Fereç / Anadolu Agency]

Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government’s peshmerga forces in Iraq on October 20, 2016. [Feriq Fereç / Anadolu Agency]

The hardline militants remain however in control of territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria. The United States has pledged to maintain its backing to allied forces in both countries until the militants’ total defeat.

The Kurds have been seeking an independent state since at least the end of World War One, when colonial powers divided up the Middle East, but their territory ended up split between modern-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Barzani, whose father led struggles against Baghdad in the 1960s and 1970s, told Reuters in July the Kurds would take responsibility for the expected ‘yes’ outcome of the referendum, and pursue its implementation through dialogue with Baghdad and regional powers to avoid conflict.

He said in an interview in the KRG capital, Erbil:

We have to rectify the history of mistreatment of our people and those who are saying that independence is not good, our question to them is, ‘if it’s not good for us, why is it good for you?’

Iraq has been led by Shia’s since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, by the US-led invasion of 2003. The country’s majority Shia community mainly lives in the south while the Kurds and Sunni Arabs inhabit two corners of the north. The centre around Baghdad is mixed.

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Kurdish officials have said disputed areas, including the oil-rich Kirkuk region, will be covered by the referendum, to determine whether they would want to remain or not in Kurdistan.

The Kurdish Peshmerga in 2014 prevented Daesh from capturing Kirkuk, in northern Iraq, after the Iraqi army fled in the face of the militants. They are effectively running the region, also claimed by Turkmen and Arabs.

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