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Iraq PM warns Kurdish referendum plans 'playing with fire': report

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi (C) poses for a picture with army generals and members of the counter-terrorism forces in the capital Baghdad on July 9, 2016
Iraqi Prim Minister's Office/AFP
UN urges Iraqi Kurds to drop referendum, open negotiations with Baghdad

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on Saturday said that a Kurdish independence referendum planned for later this month was "playing with fire," and warned that he would be prepared to intervene militarily if the vote resulted in violence.

The prime minister's comments, carried by the local Iraqi Media News Agency website, came after 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.

He warned that the vote could jeopardize the Kurds' current autonomous regime should the vote not go in their favor, according to the news website.

Al-Abadi also said, in an interview with The Associated Press, that if the vote led Iraqis to be “threatened by the use of force outside the law, then we will intervene militarily,” calling the referendum “a dangerous escalation” that could lead to conflicts over sovereign Iraqi territory.

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.

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

SAFIN HAMED (AFP)

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

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.

"The United States has repeatedly emphasized to the leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government that the referendum is distracting from efforts to defeat ISIS (IS) and stabilize the liberated areas," the White House said.

"Holding the referendum in disputed areas is particularly provocative and destabilizing," it warned.

This week, top US envoy Brett McGurk was again in Arbil and attempted to persuade the Kurdish leader to call off the vote in exchange for a new diplomatic initiative.

UN urges Iraqi Kurds to drop referendum, hold talks

The United Nations has urged Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani to drop plans for the vote and enter talks with Baghdad aimed at reaching a deal within three years.

Jan Kubis, the top UN envoy in Iraq, offered international backing for immediate negotiations between the country's federal government and the autonomous Kurdish region.

In a document he delivered to Barzani on Thursday, Kubis proposed "structured, sustained, intensive and result-oriented partnership negotiations... on how to resolve all the problems and outstanding issues" between Baghdad and Arbil.

The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) based in the northern city of Arbil is embroiled in long-standing disputes with the federal government over oil exports, budget payments and control of ethnically divided areas.

Hashmatullah (AFP)

In the document seen by AFP, Kubis called for talks, overseen by the UN Security Council, that would aim to reach a deal within "two to three years" defining "principles and arrangements" for future relations between Baghdad and the KRG.

In return, Barzani's administration would agree to postpone the referendum at least until the end of negotiations.

"Here is this offer, if they accept this alternative, there will be negotiations," Kubis told AFP.

He hoped to hear from Barzani "in the next two or three days", the UN envoy said. "I hope they will consider the options and I am waiting for their answer."

After several rounds of negotiations in the past, Arbil has repeatedly accused the central government in Baghdad of failing to deliver on its promises.

Despite assurances of Security Council involvement in implementing any future accord, Barzani on Saturday reiterated at a meeting in Dohuk, in the west of Iraqi Kurdistan, that the referendum would be "neither called off nor postponed".

But he also said that "any real alternative" was welcome and the door was not closed to a negotiated settlement.

(Staff with agencies)

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