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Middle East

Niha Qoja, mayor of Kurdish Erbil: 'We are in a historic moment'

Erbil is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Its mayor, Nihad Qoja, spoke to DW about the Kurdish independence referendum, what happens after and the Kurdish desire for independence.

DW: The Kurds have voted for their independence. What is the mood in Erbil?

Nihad Qoja: The mood here, and elsewhere based on what we've heard, is very, very good. People are very happy to be able to take part in such a historic day. Otherwise, life goes on as normal. Erbil is open for business. We are in a historic moment.

There is little doubt that the vote is overwhelmingly for independence. But it is not legally binding and the Kurdish regional president, Masoud Barzani, has repeatedly said that "yes" will not automatically lead to a declaration of independence. At the same time, the referendum has raised people's expectations. What do you see as the next steps?

First of all, the vote is legitimate because it was made legitimate by the Kurdish parliament, which is a legitimate institution under the Iraqi constitution. Therefore the referendum is legitimate.  There is international concern and criticism, yes. But it is the will of the people to decide their future. This is the Kurds' right.

Nihad Latif Qoja Bürgermeister von Erbil in Irak Archiv 2010 (DW/S. Sharef)

Mayor Nihad Latif Qoja is a fervent advocate of independence

As President Barzani has said, next we will enter negotiations with the Iraqi government in Baghdad. The Kurdish leadership has received a mandate from the people to enter into talks with Iraq about independence and a peaceful split from Iraq.

There is enormous pressure coming from Baghdad and abroadIran has halted air traffic; Turkey is threatening an oil boycott; and even the UN, the US and Western allies have spoken out against the referendum. Israel is the only country to support Kurdish independence. Can this pressure be felt in Erbil itself, and if so, how?

Allow me to clarify that the West is not against the referendum in principle. Our friends in Europe and the US simply mean that it is not the time for it, or it is inconvenient given the fight against the so-called "Islamic State." As for Iran and Turkey, they have spoken very clearly against it. But that's nothing new for us.

Looking back, it was 1992 that a Kurdish parliament and government were first elected. Turkey was against it, just as it is today. Following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the ouster of Saddam Hussein, we worked to ensure a federal system was enshrined in the country's constitution. Turkey and Iran were against it. So their current position is nothing new. I think the situation will calm down again in the coming days or maybe weeks.

Nihad Latif Qoja has been mayor of Erbil since 2004. The city, also sometimes written as Arbil or Irbil, is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. In 1981, the former sports teacher fled Saddam Hussein's regime and lived for more than two decades in Bonn.

The interview was conducted by Matthias von Hein.

Read more:  Iraq’s Kurds vote 'yes' to independent state in referendum – official results

Opinion: Kurds find few friends in independence referendum

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