The autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq announced on Wednesday that it would hold a referendum on independence, in a move the central government in Baghdad is likely to strongly oppose.
"I am pleased to announce that the date for the independence referendum has been set for Monday, September 25, 2017," KRG President Massoud Barzani said on Twitter.
I am pleased to announce that the date for the independence referendum has been set for Monday, September 25, 2017https://t.co/Woj0JuYZNE— Masoud Barzani (@masoud_barzani) June 7, 2017
Barzani's assistant, Hemin Hawrami, tweeted that voting would take place in the disputed region of Kirkuk and three other areas also claimed by the central government: Makhmour in the north, Sinjar in the northwest and Khanaqin in the east.
Hawrami said the question put to voters would be "do you want an independent Kurdistan?"
The president of Iraq's ruling coalition said in April it would oppose a Kurdish referendum. In particular, Ammar al Hakim warned the Kurds against any move to annex oil-rich Kirkuk.
The referendum date was set after a meeting of Kurdish political parties chaired by Barzani.
Today's historical moment. President Barzani along w/ all political parties who decided to have referendum on September 25.Founding fathers pic.twitter.com/X6G0DmIR8U— Hemin Hawrami (@heminhawrami) June 7, 2017
A senior Kurdish official, Hoshiyar Zebari, said in April the expected "yes" vote would strengthen the Kurds' hand in talks on self-determination with Baghdad and would not lead to an automatic declaration of independence.
The idea of Iraqi Kurdish independence has been historically opposed by Iraq. Neighbouring Iran, Turkey and Syria are also against the idea.
Kurdish officials will be visiting Baghdad and neighbouring states to discuss the referendum plan, Erbil-based TV Rudaw said, adding that elections for the Kurdish regional parliament are planned for November 6.
The Iraqi Kurds have their own armed force, the peshmerga, which in 2014 prevented Daesh from capturing Kirkuk after the Iraqi army fled in the face of the militants. The peshmerga are effectively running the region, also claimed by Turkmen and Arabs.
Iranian-backed Iraqi militias have threatened to expel the Kurds by force from the Kirkuk region and other disputed areas.
The Sinjar region is populated by Yazidis, followers of an ancient religion who speak Kurmanji, a Kurdish language. The group has been heavily persecuted by Daesh.
Makhmour is south of the Kurdish capital Erbil and Khanaqin is near the border with Iran.
Kirkuk's Kurdish-led provincial council earlier this year rejected a resolution by the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad to lower Kurdish flags which since March have been flown alongside Iraqi flags on public buildings in the region.
Masrour Barzani, head of the Kurdish government's Security Council and son of President Barzani, said in June last year Iraq should be divided into separate Shia, Sunni and Kurdish entities to prevent further sectarian bloodshed.