The autonomous region of Kurdistan in northern Iraq is pushing ahead with plans to hold an independence referendum later this month, despite strong opposition from the central government in Baghdad.
A total of 65 members of the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament voted in favor of the referendum, while 3 voted against and 43 others abstained by refusing to attend. It marked the regional parliament’s first official session in two years.
Under the agreement, the regional government will ask citizens on Monday, September 25 whether they want Kurdistan and disputed areas outside the region’s administration to become an independent state. Voters can choose either “Yes” or “No.”
Iraqi Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, who has long campaigned for a referendum on independence, told supporters on Friday afternoon that pressure would not work and said the vote will take place without further delay.
Barzani blamed the central government in Baghdad for failing to accept a partnership with Kurdistan, saying that the Kurdish people will “never accept” to being their subordinate. “We have two options: either independence or being oppressed again,” he said. “It is risky, but the risk of inaction is higher.”
The push for independence has raised concern that it could spark a conflict at a time when the Islamic State group (ISIS) is quickly losing territory. It has also prompted concern in Turkey, Iran, and Syria, which fear a spread of separatism among their own Kurdish populations.
In the U.S., White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the United States does not support the Kurdistan Regional Government’s intention to hold a referendum, claiming that the vote could distract from efforts to defeat ISIS and stabilize the liberated areas.
“Holding the referendum in disputed areas is particularly provocative and destabilizing,” Sanders said. “We therefore call on the Kurdistan Regional Government to call off the referendum and enter into serious and sustained dialogue with Baghdad, which the United States has repeatedly indicated it is prepared to facilitate.”
Masrour Barzani, the Chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, urged the international community to respect the decision to hold a vote on independence. “Opposition [to the vote] defies basic universal principles,” he said. “Nothing is more legitimate than the vote of the people, especially one determined through democratic and peaceful means.”
Barzani previously argued that Iraq, in its current form, would not succeed.
“Iraq was built on wrong foundations against the wishes and aspirations of its peoples. Forced existence leads only to enmity and conflict,” he said on August 22. “[Iraq is] polarized along sectarian lines and already practically divided.”
“The only solution is to live alongside each other as neighbors in two newly defined independent states,” Barzani said. He further emphasized the need for dialogue with Baghdad to negotiate terms through peaceful means, adding that Iraq’s position will determine how and when independence is declared.
Earlier this week, Israel became the first state to support an independent Kurdistan.
“Israel rejects the [Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)] and considers it a terrorist organization, as opposed to Turkey, which supports the terror organization Hamas,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday. “While Israel rejects terror in any form, it supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to attain a state of its own.”
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