Iraq's Kurdish leader Barzani says no compromise on independence vote

Iraq's Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani says he expects a "yes vote" in favour of independence in the referendum on September 25.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

President Massoud Barzani speaks during an interview in Erbil, Iraq. July 6, 2017.

Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Masoud Barzani said on Thursday there was no turning back on a bid to achieve an independent Kurdish state, expecting a "yes vote" on September 25 independence referendum.

Iraq's Kurdish leader Barzani said in an interview that the timetable for independence after a September 25 vote on the issue was "flexible but not open-ended". 

The result could turn into a regional flashpoint, with Turkey, Iran, and Syria, along with Iraq the states with sizeable Kurdish populations as all resolutely opposed to an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq.

But Barzani said negotiations with Baghdad, neighbours and international powers would start immediately after the vote in order to reach an amicable agreement.

"Our main goal is to implement and achieve the decision of our people through peace and dialogue," he said.

Barzani also played down speculation that the referendum would spark violence, saying "the legitimacy of the people is bigger than the legitimacy of any of the political parties or any of the external interventions".

"I don't think anybody can stand against the big wave of the people of Kurdistan when they decide their destiny. Maybe there will be some attempts to foil (it)... We will try our best not to allow that to happen."

He said he was ready to allay the security concerns of Iraq, Turkey, and Iran, saying that postponing independence would actually lead to greater instability.

"We have proved that we are factors of stability," he said.

"So what we do through a referendum is prevent that upcoming instability. We want to cut any possibility of bloodshed in the future."

Fate of Kirkuk

Within Iraq's borders, there is growing concern the real purpose of the referendum is not secession, but to strengthen Kurdish claims over hotly disputed territory adjoining recognised KRG boundaries, such as the oil-rich region and city of Kirkuk.

Arab residents sit amid their destroyed home in Kirkuk's Huzeiran neighbourhood, Iraq, Friday. December 2, 2016. (AP)

The vote would decide the fate of Kirkuk, which Kurdish Peshmerga forces prevented Daesh from capturing in 2014, Barzani said at his palace in the hillside village of Salahaddin.

"Whatever the people of Kirkuk decide within the referendum, that decision should be respected," he said.

The Peshmerga effectively runs Kirkuk, also claimed by Turkmen and Arabs.

Iran-backed Iraqi Shia militias have threatened to expel the Kurds by force from this region and three other disputed areas - Sinjar, Makhmour and Khanaqin.

Inside the KRG, parties such as the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani or the dissident Gorran group, all favour independence but not necessarily under the leadership of Barzani and his KDP.

Historic bid

Barzani accused the Shia-led Iraqi government, backed by Iran, of not sticking to a constitutional agreement allowing the Kurds to have greater powers under a federal state set up after the US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.

"For 14 years we have been waiting and we have been discussing this partnership but we have always been told it's not a good time and it's not acceptable timing so my question is, when is the right time?"

He said the Kurds were ready to take responsibility for the outcome of the referendum.

"We have to rectify the history of mistreatment of our people and those who are saying that independence is not good, our question to them is, if it's not good for us, why is it good for you?"

The Kurds have been seeking an independent state since at least the end of World War One when colonial powers divided up the Middle East.

Kurdish Peshmerga prepares to fire artillery at Daesh positions in Bashiqa, east of Mosul, Iraq. November 7, 2016. (AP)

After the fall of Daesh in Mosul​​

An additional element of regional volatility is Turkey's determination to stop further advances across northern Syria by the YPG, which it says is allied to the local but prolific terror outfit PKK.

Ankara and the KDP are united in trying to stop the YPG from consolidating self-rule in Syria. But Turkey regards Barzani's independence bid as pulling in the opposite direction.

He said his "Kurdish state" would give full assurances to ethnic minorities including Christians, Yazidis, and Shabaks, indicating his Peshmerga forces had already lost hundreds of fighters to retake their areas from Daesh.

Fleeing Iraqi civilians walk past the heavily damaged The Great al Nuri mosque as Iraqi forces continue their advance against Daesh in the Old City of Mosul, Iraq. July 4, 2017. (AP)

As the battle to recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul draws to a close, Barzani said victory is incomplete without a political reconciliation plan.

He accused the Iraqi government of failing to prepare a post-battle political, security and governance plan.

"I warned [that] if you are not going to have this political plan, the situation will reverse."

Barzani said a high-level committee formed by the Kurdish region, the Baghdad government and a US-led military coalition to help Mosul leaders rebuild the city had never convened.

"I have big concerns about the situation in Mosul and about post-liberation because the end of Daesh in Mosul doesn't mean the end of Daesh. Those factors, the environment that brought it into Mosul have not (changed).

"I have a big concern about the future of the area. I hope I will be wrong."