Turkey, US urge Barzani to cancel planned independence referendum
ANKARA/WASHINGTONTurkey and the United States have once again called on Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, to cancel a planned independence referendum scheduled to be held on Sept. 25.
“Mr. Barzani knows very well what we think about this issue,” President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told private broadcaster A Haber late on Sept. 15, as he added that Turkey would announce its official position on the referendum after its National Security Council (MGK) and cabinet will be convened on Sept. 22.
“We were going to hold our MGK meeting on Sept. 27 and now we rescheduled the meeting that we will also discuss this referendum issue to Sept. 22. We will hold it at 3 p.m. Cabinet will be convened after the MGK meeting. The final decision will be given after these meetings. There are no different proposals. Our stance is clear, but the heightened sensitivity of ours on this issue will be clear after the MGK and cabinet meetings on Sept. 22,” he also said.
Earlier on the same day, Barzani said the vote would not be delayed, despite pressing requests from Turkey, the U.S. and other Western powers worried that the tensions between Baghdad and Erbil would distract from the war on Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants.
“We still haven’t heard a proposal that can be an alternative to the Kurdistan referendum,” Barzani told a rally in the Kurdish region, referring to a proposal put forward by the United States and other Western envoys this week.
President Erdoğan commented on Barzani’s statements, saying that “they were really wrong.”
“He has been aware of our sensitivity regarding Iraq’s territorial integrity for years. I don’t find it appropriate at all that he engages in some operations,” he also said.
“I see this [referendum] as something beyond the abdication of reason. This is political inexperience. There cannot be such an understanding of politics,” Erdoğan added.
Parliament approves plan
Also on Sept. 15, the KRG parliament approved the plan to hold the referendum, ignoring opposition from Baghdad and the wider region as well as Western concerns.
Parliament reconvened in Arbil, where an overwhelming majority of the Kurdish lawmakers taking part backed the plan.
The parliament session was the first held since the legislature was suspended nearly two years ago, though only 68 of 111 lawmakers attended due to a boycott by the main opposition movement Gorran.
The Gorran movement boycotted the parliamentary session, the first since a dispute between them and Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) caused the suspension of the assembly in October 2015.
“Those assembled in parliament today think this is a lawful session, but this is unlawful,” Birzu Majeed, the head of Gorran’s parliamentary block, told a news conference held while parliament was in session.
Lawmakers from a third party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Iraq’s former president Jalal Talabani, ensured the required quorum. The PUK is a historic rival of the KDP but supports the referendum plan.
Hours after the decision, the White House publicly called for the first time on the KRG to cancel the referendum, warning that the vote was “distracting from efforts to defeat ISIS and stabilize the liberated areas,” using another name for ISIL.
“The United States does not support the Kurdistan Regional Government’s intention to hold a referendum later this month,” the White House said in a statement, while urging the KRG to “enter into serious and sustained dialogue with Baghdad, which the United States has repeatedly indicated it is prepared to facilitate.”
U.S. officials fear the vote, while not legally binding, will hurt Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s re-election chances, complicate ties with Turkey and disrupt the war against ISIL.
“Holding the referendum in disputed areas is particularly provocative and destabilizing,” President Donald Trump’s White House also said.
This week, top U.S. envoy Brett McGurk was again in Arbil and attempted to persuade the Kurdish leader to call off the highly-charged popular vote in exchange for a new diplomatic initiative.
On Sept. 14, the Baghdad parliament fired the governor of the northern province of Kirkuk, Najm Eddine Karim, over his provincial council’s decision to take part in the non-binding Kurdish referendum.