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Iraqi Kurdish parliament votes to hold independence referendum

Iraqi Kurdish lawmakers have voted to move ahead with a controversial independence referendum. The vote comes amid international opposition and internal political disputes within Kurdish ranks.

The parliament of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region on Friday approved an independence referendum on September 25, defying opposition to the vote from Iran, Turkey and Baghdad, as well as the United States and the EU.

Masoud Barzani Yunus Keles / Anadolu Agency

Barzani is leading calls for the independence referendum, but his critics say he has ulterior motives

Kurdish lawmakers convened parliament in Irbil for the first time in two years to pass the measure, with 65 out of 68 parliamentarians in the 111-seat body present voting in favor. The opposition Gorran, the second-largest party in parliament, and the smaller Kurdistan Islamic Group, boycotted the vote and called it invalid.

The vote was held to give legal validity to the referendum, which was agreed to in June by the Iraqi Kurdish President Masoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and its traditional rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), as well as several other smaller parties.

Read more: The Middle East's complex Kurdish landscape 

International opposition

The vote came despite intense lobbying from the United States to postpone the referendum over concerns it could distract from the fight against the so-called "Islamic State" (IS) and fuel conflict between the Kurds and Baghdad.

The White House issued a statement following the Kurdish vote, calling on the Kurds to call off the vote and "enter into serious and sustained dialogue with Baghdad."

On Tuesday, Iraq's parliament in Baghdad rejected the independence referendum as unconstitutional and called it a threat to peace in a vote boycotted by Kurdish lawmakers.

But Barzani has vowed to press forward despite unspecified "alternatives" offered by the United States this week to entice its Iraqi Kurdish allies to delay the referendum.

"If they have a stronger alternative to the referendum, the Kurdish leadership will look at it, but if they want [us] to postpone the vote with no alternatives, we won't," Barzani said Friday.

Disputed territories

The non-binding independence vote is planned for the three northern provinces of Dohuk, Sulaimani and Irbil that make up the autonomous Kurdistan region.

Controversially, the vote will also be held in so-called disputed areas outside the Kurdistan Regional Government's (KRG) official boundaries. This includes parts of the northern province of Nineveh and the oil-rich province of Kirkuk, captured by Kurdish peshmerga after the Iraqi army collapsed in 2014 as IS swept through large swaths of the country.

Last month, Kirkuk's provincial council voted to join the referendum in a vote boycotted by Arabs and Turkmen in the multi-ethnic city after the Kurdish governor Najmaldin Karim called the vote. On Thursday, Iraq's parliament voted to remove Karim from his post, a decision he summarily dismissed.

Kirkuk has long been the center of dispute between Baghdad and the Kurds, raising the prospect that conflict could erupt between Arabs, Turkmen and Kurds.

Read more: Who are the Kurds?

Kurdistan flag waving on the wind (picture-alliance/NurPhoto/K. Dobuszynski)

The Iraqi Kurds have fought for an independent Kurdish state for nearly a century

Spoilers: Turkey and Iran

Turkey and Iran are against the referendum over concerns it could have a knock-on effect on their Kurdish minorities. 

Iran backs the so-called Popular Mobilization Units fighting IS, raising the prospect that these militia could be turned against Kurdish forces in disputed territories.

Hadi al-Ameri, the head of the influential Badr organization, one of several Iran-backed militias, warned Thursday that a Kurdish independence bid would lead to civil war.

Ankara, which has warned the referendum would come at a "cost," has close economic and political relations with the KRG and Barzani. It has several military bases in the Kurdistan region and also holds considerable leverage over the KRG due to its large economic footprint and the fact that it is the only major outlet for Kurdish oil exports. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday that Barzani had made a "very, very wrong" decision to hold the referendum, while Prime Minister Binali Yildirm warned of possible sanctions. 

A clear redline for Turkey is the status of Kirkuk due to its oil wealth and minority Turkmen, ethnic cousins of Turks backed by Ankara. 

Watch video 04:30

Turkey: Dreaming of Kurdistan

Kurdish infighting

The referendum will occur amid deep divisions between Kurdish political parties and a multi-year economic crisis that has left civil servants and even peshmerga salaries either unpaid or partially paid.

Already in financial trouble due to waste and low oil prices, Kurdistan — like the rest of Iraq — relies on Baghdad for its share of the oil budget, giving the central government significant power. Irbil and Baghdad have long been in disagreement over oil revenues and contracts the Kurdistan region has signed with oil companies.

There are also questions over the leadership of Barzani, who was supposed to step down three years ago at the end of his two terms as president before receiving a controversial extension. 

Barzani has been in dispute with Gorran since he blocked its parliamentarian speaker from Irbil and shuttered the legislature in 2015. Gorran wants elections, restoration of the constitution and for Barzani to step down. The party is for independence at the right time, but says the Kurdistan region should first put its domestic house in order and pass reforms before striving for independence.

Analysts say the referendum is unlikely to lead to an immediate declaration of independence and is designed, for now, to bolster the Kurds' bargaining position with Baghdad over disputed territories, shared oil revenues and greater autonomy. It is also designed to strengthen Barzani's position as a Kurdish nationalist leader.

There is widespread support among Iraqi Kurds for an independent state. Supporters of the referendum argue Kurds deserve their own state after fighting IS and facing years of oppression at the hands of governments in Baghdad, including gassing and ethnic cleansing under former dictator Saddam Hussein.

The Iraqi Kurds fought an on-and-off insurgency for decades against the central government until the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 enshrined Kurdish autonomy in the Iraqi constitution.  

cw/cmk (AFP, Reuters)

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