Tensions mount in Iraq, region ahead of Kurdistan referendum

Sunday 17/09/2017
Tinder box. An Iraqi Kurdish man holds a Kurdish flag as he stands next to Kurdistan’s parliament building in Erbil, on September 15. (AFP)

London- Tensions in Iraq are rising ahead of a referendum on the independence of the semi-autonomous Kurd­istan region to be held September 25 but opposed by the central government in Baghdad and foreign powers.
The Kurdish region’s parliament voted on the evening of September 15 to go ahead with the referendum in ten days despite calls from the United States, neighbouring Tur­key and Iran and others to call off the vote.
“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. It urged the Kurdistan Regional Govern­ment (KRG) to “enter into serious and sustained dialogue with Bagh­dad, which the United States has repeatedly indicated it is prepared to facilitate.”
Representatives from the United Nations, the United States and the United Kingdom had met Septem­ber 14 with KRG President Masoud Barzaini in a bid to persuade him to postpone the referendum, which they view as a threat to Iraq’s stabil­ity and a hindrance to international efforts to counter the Islamic State (ISIS).
The Iraqi parliament had previ­ously declared the referendum to be illegal, to the displeasure of Kurd­ish lawmakers, and called on Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to “take all measures” to preserve the country’s unity.
Parliament subsequently voted to remove Kirkuk Governor Naj­maddin Kareem from office for his role in including the disputed oil-rich province in the referendum. Kareem dismissed the order, saying that Baghdad did not have the au­thority to fire him.
Tensions over the referendum have already caused confusion over who will take part in the military of­fensive against ISIS in Hawija. Ini­tial media reports said that the Iraqi security forces, predominately Shia Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) militias, and the Kurdish pesh­merga would be involved. Later reports, however, have suggested that either the Shia militias or pesh­merga would not be taking part.
Some PMU fighters and peshmer­ga leaders have threatened to use force over control of Kirkuk.
In addition to political tensions between Baghdad and Erbil, the referendum has widened the di­vide between the country’s dif­ferent communities. Kurds are overwhelmingly in favour of inde­pendence while Arabs and Turk­men, among others, are strongly opposed to the breakup of the country. But Kurdish voices that are against the timing of the referen­dum are being silenced, as are the voices of minorities living under KRG control.
Tensions are likely to escalate fur­ther if the KRG actually goes ahead with plans to break away from Iraq instead of just negotiating a better deal with Baghdad.
Regional rivals Turkey and Iran are more likely to set their differ­ences aside to join forces against the breakup of Iraq, which they view as a security threat.