Iraqi Kurds head to polls for independence referendum despite warnings

Iraqi Kurds head to polls for independence referendum despite warnings

Iraqi Kurds head to polls for independence referendum despite warnings

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Iraqi Kurds are set to vote in a referendum on Sept. 25 on independence for the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), despite warnings from within the country, Turkey, Iran and the international community.

Turkey considers the independence referendum as “illegitimate and null and void,” Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said on Sept. 24, adding that the KRG leadership “will be responsible for the outcome.”

“Any status change or any formation of new entities on country’s southern frontiers will never be tolerated by Turkey. The referendum to be held is illegitimate, null and void,” Yıldırım said at a ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) event in Ankara. 

“The northern Iraqi regional government [KRG] decided to hold this referendum on its own, insisting on this referendum despite the fact that the United Nations and all nations in the world are against it. It will have primary responsibility for any outcome of this referendum,” he added.

Iran also upped the pressure on Sept. 24, announcing that it had blocked all flights to and from the KRG at the request of Baghdad.

Iraq’s federal government has called the referendum “unconstitutional” and there are concerns that the vote could lead to unrest.

Washington and many Western countries have also called for its postponement or cancellation, saying it will hamper the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

The Turkish Parliament on Sept. 23 approved the extension of a mandate permitting the government to deploy troops to Iraq and Syria for another year, as the country’s army continued a military drill on the border with Iraq.

The motion was approved by a large majority in the assembly, with deputies from the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) joining the AKP but Kurdish issue-focused Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) deputies voting it down. 

The government motion had previously allowed the Turkish military to carry out cross-border operations from Oct. 2, 2016 until Oct. 31, 2017. The latest motion stated that Turkey places “great importance on the protection of Iraq’s territorial integrity, national unity and stability.”

Iraqi Chief of Staff Gen. Othman al-Ghanimi was in Ankara on Sept. 23 to hold talks with Turkish Chief of Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar, and Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards also began military exercises Sept. 24 along the Iraqi border.

Yıldırım said the planned vote “will add to already existing instability, authority gaps and chaos in the region, and the people living there will pay the price.”

“All those who approve this cruelty to the people of this region, to our Kurdish brothers and sisters, just because of the ambitions and illogical dreams of certain rulers, will give an account for all this to their nation and to all those who opposed it,” he said, noting that Turkey has been supportive of the KRG in the past. 

Some five million Kurds are expected to vote in the three provinces that have since 2003 formed the KRG region, but also in territories disputed with Baghdad such as the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.

Kirkuk is perhaps the most sensitive sticking point, and there was a run on food supplies in the province on Sept. 23, as residents stocked up in case of post-referendum trouble.

Home to Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens, Kirkuk is disputed between the federal government and the KRG.