Kurdish President Masoud Barzani is vowing to go ahead with a referendum on Kurdish independence, despite an Iraqi Supreme Court ruling ordering a halt to next week’s vote and stiff opposition from major powers.
“The Kurdistan Region will happily negotiate with Baghdad after the referendum,” Barzani said in an online statement. “If we cannot become good partners within Iraq, then let us be great neighbors.”
Numbering about 30 million, Kurds make up a sizable minority in a number of Middle Eastern nations, comprising about 10% of the population in Syria, 19% in Turkey, 15-20% in Iraq, and nearly 10% in Iran. They have never had a nation state of their own, prompting Kurdish nationalist movements across the region.
The Kurdish region in northern Iraq is part of that country but it is semi-autonomous entity in a largely ethnic Kurdish swath.
On Monday, Iraq’s highest court ordered the suspension of the September 25 referendum. The court’s move came in response to lawsuits challenging the planned vote. One was filed by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
Another was filed by four members of Iraq’s Parliament – who called for the suspension of the referendum and the designation of the poll as “unconstitutional,” according to court documents.
The referendum has been criticized by the United Nations, as well as US, British and Turkish diplomats.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said any referendum would take away from the battle against ISIS, and that the issue should be resolved through “structured dialogue and constructive compromise.”
British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon echoed his remarks.
“That is our message to President Barzani, (of Iraqi Kurdistan) this referendum is a mistake, and could detract from the essential campaign of defeating Daesh (ISIS),” Fallon said Monday.
On Friday, the White House also called on the Kurdish Regional Government to call off the referendum, saying it was “distracting from efforts to defeat ISIS.”
Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIS, said during a press conference in Erbil last week “that the path is a very risky one, and we’ve made that point very clear.”
“There is no international support for the referendum, really, from anybody,” he said.
“To have the legitimate process, you want to have observers, you want to have the United Nations, you want to have international legitimacy. And there is no international legitimacy for this process. That could be because of the timeline that was put on, it could be for a number of reasons. But where we are is that heading into a referendum on September 25 there is no prospect for any sense of international legitimacy to this process.”
Turkey fears the vote could stoke separatist aspirations among its own sizable Kurdish minority.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking at the annual UN General Assembly meeting on Tuesday, urged the Kurdish authorities to “abort the initiative.”
“Ignoring the clear and determined stance of Turkey on this matter may lead to a process that shall deprive the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government even the opportunities they currently enjoy,” he said, according to a transcript of the address.
Iraq, he said, needs compromises on the basis of territorial integrity and the realization of the ideals to build a “common future.”
“Steps such as demands for independence that can cause new crises and conflicts in the region must be avoided,” he said.
On the ground in the battle against ISIS, Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq, known as Peshmerga, and in northern Syria, known as the People’s Protection Units or YPG, have proven themselves effective fighting forces.
But Erdogan says the YPG is working to further its own agenda.
“The efforts by PYD-YPG to change the demographic structure in regions it has captured, to seize the property of the people, to kill or exile the ones who stand against it form a crime against humanity,” he said.
The YPG is often referred to as the armed wing of the Democratic Union party (PYD), a Syrian Kurdish opposition party.
Erdogan also made reference to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, saying “Turkey is engaged in an intensive fight against the bloody terrorist organizations of the region, such as Daesh and PKK nourished by the instability in Syria and Iraq.”
Kirkuk governor: Dreams sometimes become reality
Turkey and others regard the PYD and PKK as an offshoot of the PKK, considered a terror group by Turkey, the United States and the European Union.
For decades, Turkey has been facing a violent insurgency from the PKK, a banned group that first took up arms against Turkey in 1984, seeking an independent state for the Kurdish minority concentrated in the southeast of the country.
A curfew was imposed in the oil-rich city Iraqi of Kirkuk on Monday night, following deadly clashes between supporters and opponents of the referendum, Kirkuk police said. One man was killed.
Najmaldin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk province, in a July interview with CNN’s Fred Pleitgen, said Kurds had been subjected to discrimination for decades, and that the time was ripe for a referendum and then a serious discussion with the Iraqi government on a peaceful separation.
“Everybody has the right to dream, of course,” he said. “Dream sometimes becomes reality.”
Sarah El Sirgany reported from Abu Dhabi.