The President of Iraqi Kurdistan confirms his intention to go to the polls and to battle for the future of Kirkuk. The city must be a "symbol of coexistence of all ethnicities". The "Yes" victory does not automatically involve the declaration of independence, but will strengthen negotiations with the central government.
Erbil (AsiaNews) - If Baghdad does not accept the outcome of the Kurdish referendum on independence scheduled at the end of the month, Iraqi Kurdistan authorities are ready to separate by tracing unilateral and autonomous borders of the future state. This is what President Massoud Barzani said in an interview with BBC, while also pointing to a path of dialogue and consensual agreement with the central government if the Kurdish people choose secession.
In recent days, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi rejected the referendum by extolling it as "unconstitutional."
However, the Kurdish leadership has confirmed its intention to continue with the vote. President Barzani warns that the population is ready to fight against any group that intends to change the "reality" of Kirkuk - one of the controversial places around which the battle between Erbil and Baghdad is consumed - through "force".
The Peshmerga (Kurdish fighters) have long taken control of the city; the subsoil is rich in oil and represents a desirable reserve to draw for fueling the country's finances. However, inside there is a rich representation of Arabs and Turkmen, and Baghdad itself - just as the Shiite fighter militias - consider the area as an integral and indispensable part of its territory.
The Kurds represent the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, but have never obtained a stable and independent nation. In Iraq, they account for 15 to 20% of the population out of a total of 37 million people and have been subjected to fierce repression by the Iraqi army in Saddam Hussein's times in the 1980's and 90's.
The Kurdistan Independence referendum will take place next September 25 in the three provinces that make up the region: Dohuk, Erbil and Sulaimaniya, as well as "Kurdistan areas outside the regional administration" (including Kirkuk, Makhmour, Khanaqin and Sinjar).
The Kurdish authorities have made it clear that the victory of the "Yes" would not in fact constitute a declaration of independence, but would strengthen the negotiations with Baghdad for further "decentralization" from the central government. "This is the first step," warns Barzani. For the first time in history, the people of Kurdistan will be free to decide their future. " After the vote, "we will begin talks with Baghdad," he continues, "to reach an agreement on borders, water and oil." "This will be our way of proceeding - concludes the Kurdish leader, launching a warning - but if they do not accept it, the dialogue will be quite different."
Finally, the president has warned of alerts from the United States and the United Kingdom, fearing that the referendum could pose a risk to Iraq in the struggle against the Islamic State (IS) and the stability of the region. He looks at Kirkuk's "contention" as the future "symbol of coexistence for all ethnicities".
Over the years, hundreds of thousands of Christians have been sheltered in the region, as well as Muslims and Yazidis who fled the Nineveh plain with the arrival of the Islamic State. And among the critical and opposing voices of the country's division, is precisely that of the Chaldean Church, which has long worked for the unity of Iraq in the face of internal problems and external threats (including the Islamic State). The opposition of the patriarchate is not only about the self-control of the Kurds, but also the projects fed by some Christian groups; in contrast to the policy promoted by Patriarch Louis Raphael Sako, they demand the creation of a "Christian ghetto" on the Nineveh plain.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees - Christians, Muslims and Yazidis-escaped from the Islamic State have been sheltering in the region. The area is rich in oil and natural gas and has long been contended between local authorities and central government. Turkey, Syria and Iran against the project for fear of internal secessions.
The supreme court intends to examine the appeals received on the vote. At the heart of the dispute is the "constitutionality" of the referendum. A Kurdish delegation waits in Baghdad for an official meeting. Concern among world news agencies: the vote is likely to weaken the Arab-Kurdish anti-Isis alliance and trigger a new internal conflict.
As referendum day, 25 September, approaches tensions between Erbil and Baghdad rise. Mar Sako calls on "moderate" voices to defuse tensions. A new military confrontation would have "disastrous" consequences. Minorities are growing fearful. Source tells AsiaNews that “the situation is even more delicate”.
The vote could fuel fresh sectarian clashes. For some time, the Kurds have aspired to an independent state, but several of the region’s states (Syria, Iraq and, above all, Turkey) opposed the plan. Kurds have been used in regional wars, and now intend to decide their destiny. The US and Israel play a role. For Barzani, Baghdad is not a partner but could be a "good neighbour".