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Tensions Rise As Kurdish Independence Vote Approaches

Iraqi Kurds fly Kurdish flags during an event to urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on September 15, 2017.

Despite the opposition of Iraq and many other countries to holding a referendum on Kurdish independence in northern Iraq, the autonomous territory’s president, Massoud Barzani told the British defense secretary that they will not postpone the referendum without commitment from Baghdad to begin independence negotiations, sealed with international guarantees that agreements will be enforced.

According to a Kurdish news network, Rudaw, British Secretary of State for Defense Michael Fallon called on Barzani to delay the September 25 independence referendum and focus on dialogue with the central government “under the supervision of the international community,” read a Kurdish-language statement from the presidency’s office.

Earlier, the Daily Telegraph of London had reported, “Sir Michael Fallon, [British] defence secretary, is meeting on Monday with the president of Iraqi Kurdistan in a last-ditch attempt to persuade him to call off his planned referendum on independence.

In a press conference after the meeting, Fallon called the Kurdistan independence referendum “a mistake” and said the UK is “committed to the integrity of Iraq,” AFP reported.

Responding to Fallon’s comments, Massoud Barzani reiterated, “Referendum and dialogue are both tools for independence and that, since no alternative had been presented that could guarantee independence talks and Baghdad’s readiness to commence such talks, the referendum cannot be delayed”.

Furthermore, the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq issued a statement, insisting, “The referendum will not be delayed only for the sake of holding talks with Baghdad without knowing the content of these talks or knowing what international guarantees they will have”.

Fallon was in Baghdad earlier in the day, meeting with Iraqi officials.

In a surprising move, on June 7, Barzani declared that a referendum on Kurdistan independence would be held on September 25.

On Monday, September 18, Iraq’s Supreme Court, referring to “complaints” it had received, ordered the suspension of the referendum while it examines whether the voting would be constitutional.

Baghdad is also angered for the inclusion of Kirkuk in the vote, a contested oil-rich city which lies between Iraq and Kurdistan.

Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s prime minister, said that Iraq is prepared to intervene militarily if the Kurdish region's referendum entails violence.

Iraq’s neighbours, particularly Iran and Turkey, as well as UN, U.S. and U.K. are also against the referendum, calling it a distraction of attention from war with the “Islamic State” (IS).

A man talks on the phone infront of a banner urging people to vote for the 25th independence referendum in Kirkuk, September 10, 2017
A man talks on the phone infront of a banner urging people to vote for the 25th independence referendum in Kirkuk, September 10, 2017

Turkey, which has long been fighting its own Kurdish separatists, carried out military exercises at the Iraqi border and amassed dozens of tanks on its southern frontier.

Meanwhile Iran, home to some seven million Kurds, warned of cancelling all its agreement with the Iraq’ autonomous Kurdish region, a border blockade and military action if Iraqi Kurds went ahead with their plans.

Moreover, the chief commander of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps’ Qods Force, Major General Qassem Soleimani vowed to let al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi loose to confront Iraqi Kurds.

Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi or the People's Mobilization Forces (PMF), also known as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) is an Iraqi state-sponsored umbrella organization comprised of some 40 militia entities, which are mainly Shi’a Muslim groups.

Curfew Imposed on Kirkuk

While the countdown for the referendum has already begun, the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq has turned into a battlefield for Kurds and Turkmens to fight each other.

The bloody clashes that began on Monday night, forced the city’s authorities to impose a nighttime curfew on it.

According to Reuters, the Kurdish security and the police erected checkpoints across the city after a Kurd was killed in a clash with the guards of a Turkmen political party office.

Two more Kurds and a Turkmen security guard were also wounded in the clash that broke out on Monday night when a Kurdish convoy celebrating the referendum drove past the Turkmen party office, security sources said. The Kurdish dead and wounded were among those who had been celebrating, they said.

Tension in the city rose after the Kurdish-led provincial council voted this month to include it in a referendum planned by the Kurdistan regional government of northern Iraq.

Kirkuk provincial Governor Najmiddin Karim in his office in Kirkuk, September 14, 2017
Kirkuk provincial Governor Najmiddin Karim in his office in Kirkuk, September 14, 2017

Oil-rich Kirkuk, which is also home to Sunni Arabs and Turkmens, lies outside the official boundaries of the Kurdistan autonomous region and is claimed by both the Kurds and the central government in Baghdad.

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters seized Kirkuk and other disputed territories when the Iraqi army was defeated by “Islamic State” in 2014, preventing its oilfields from falling into the militants’ hands, Reuters reported.

Iran-backed Iraqi Shi’a militias have threatened to dislodge the Peshmerga from Kirkuk should the Kurds proceed with the vote.

Furthermore, according to Reuters, Turkish troops dug in on the country's southern border on Tuesday and turned their weapons towards Kurdish-run northern Iraq, where authorities plan an independence referendum in defiance of Ankara and Western powers.

Tanks and rocket launchers mounted on armored vehicles faced the Iraqi frontier, about 2 km (one mile) away, and mechanical diggers tore up agricultural fields for the army to set up positions in the flat, dry farmlands.

The military drill, launched without warning on Monday, is due to last until Sept. 26, Turkish military sources said, a day after the planned referendum for Kurdish independence in northern Iraq.

A Reuters reporter saw four armored vehicles carrying heavy weaponry and soldiers taking positions in specially dug areas, their weapons directed across the border. A generator and satellite dish could be seen at one location.

The show of force reflects the scale of concern in Turkey, which has the largest Kurdish population in the region, that the vote could embolden the outlawed Kurdish PKK which has waged a three-decade insurgency in Turkey's southeast.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last week Ankara would not shy away from using force if necessary, and the showdown has hit the Turkish lira. It weakened beyond 3.5 to the dollar on Tuesday for the first time in four weeks.

Turkey has long seen itself as protector of the ethnic Turkmen minority, with particular concern about the oil city of Kirkuk where Kurds have extended their control since seizing the city when Islamic State overwhelmed Iraqi forces in 2014.

Cross-border trade, however, appeared to continue. Despite the nearby military maneuvers a kilometer-long line of traffic, mostly trucks and cargo, queued to enter Iraq at the Habour border gate. Turkey's strong economic ties to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) will weigh on any response from Ankara. The KRG pumps hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil per day and has approved plans for Russian oil major Rosneft to invest in pipelines to export gas to Turkey and Europe.

Turkey has brought forward to Friday a cabinet meeting and a session of its national security council to consider possible action.

Meanwhile, hundreds of people protested a decision by the Iraqi Parliament to dismiss pro-referendum Kirkuk governor Najmadin Karim.

However, hours after the parliamentary decision Najmadin Karim vowed that he would stay in office and the referendum would go ahead as planned.

With reporting by Reuters