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Kurdistan parliament approves independence referendum for September 25

Des enfants jouent au ballon dans un quartier d'Erbil, la capitale du Kurdistan irakien
Safin Hamed / AFP
Moves toward Kurdish independence are strongly opposed by Baghdad

Kurdish lawmakers on Friday voted to plow ahead with an independence referendum on September 25, in a move foreign observers fear will ignite conflict with the federal Iraqi government in Baghdad.

The session of the regional parliament in Erbil was boycotted by the opposition, but still reached a quorum and went ahead, with 65 out of 68 parliamentarians present voting in favor.

After the show of hands, lawmakers stood to sing the Kurdish anthem while others raised flags to the sound of applause.

Opposition parties Goran and Jamaa Islamiya earlier said they would boycott the session.

The 111-member parliament in the Kurdish regional capital of Erbil had not convened for two years over disputes between political parties.

Moves toward independence are strongly opposed by Baghdad.

The governor of Kirkuk was fired by the federal parliament earlier this week over his support for a referendum.

Kurds are a stateless people who are a sizeable minority of the population in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Only in Iraq, however, have they achieved a broad level of autonomy, buoyed by cash from oil exports and a degree of Western military protection since the early 1990s.

Just hours before the vote, President Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, whose country has its own large Kurdish minority, said Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani's decision not to postpone the referendum was "very wrong," Reuters reported.

Washington opposes the referendum on the grounds it would weaken joint Arab-Kurdish military operations which have helped to send the Islamic State group into retreat in both Iraq and Syria.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday that he supports the Kurds' "right" to their own state.

Delayed elections

Safin Hamed (AFP/File)

Barzani's mandate as president of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq officially expired in 2015.

The Kurdish leadership, made up of Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Iraq's former president Jalal Talabani, have maintained that the three-year-old battle to drive back IS has made it impossible to hold fresh elections.

Two opposition parties -- the independent Goran, which has 24 seats in the 111-seat parliament, and Jamaa Islamiya, which is close to Iran and holds six seats -- said they would boycott the session.

Friday's session in Arbil followed two anti-referendum votes which passed earlier this week in the national parliament in Baghdad, both of which were boycotted by Kurdish legislators.

Analysts say the referendum plan, which has stirred Arab-Kurdish ethnic tensions, could mark the end of an era of cooperation during which Baghdad and Arbil battled IS together after it seized swathes of northern and western Iraq in the summer of 2014.

Turkey and Iran fear the referendum could stoke separatist aspirations among their own sizeable Kurdish minorities.

Ankara has warned of the "cost" to the Iraqi Kurds, whose economy is heavily dependent on oil exports via a pipeline running through Turkey to the Mediterranean.                  

Communities taking up arms                  

SAFIN HAMED (AFP)

On Thursday, the Baghdad parliament fired the governor of the northern province of Kirkuk, Najm Eddine Karim, over his provincial council's decision to take part in the non-binding Kurdish referendum.

The oil-rich province is disputed by Baghdad and Arbil and home to diverse communities including Arabs and Turkmens who oppose the vote.

Mixed regions such as Kirkuk are a highly sensitive issue in ethnically fragmented Iraq, with its Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad and large Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities.

In Kirkuk province, the different communities have been arming themselves while numerous paramilitary forces have taken up positions north and west of Baghdad as joint units advance against the retreating IS jihadists.

In the city of Kirkuk, Kurdish peshmerga fighters have taken charge of security, while Shiite paramilitary units have been deployed on the outskirts.

Hadi al-Ameri, head of the powerful Iranian-backed Badr organisation, has vowed to defend the unity of Iraq and warned that the Kurdish referendum could lead to partition and civil war.

Iraqi Kurdistan, whose people were brutally repressed under Saddam Hussein, won autonomy in 2005 following the dictator's ouster in a US-led invasion under a constitution which set up a federal republic in Iraq.

The referendum would "not necessarily lead to (an) immediate declaration of statehood, but rather to know the will and opinion of the people of Kurdistan about their future", Barzani said in February.

Kurdish leaders have since reiterated that a "yes" vote would pave the way for the start of "serious negotiations" with the Baghdad government.

(Staff with AFP)

Comments

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Israel please support the people of Biafra for a referendum. We are your natural ally.

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