UN, US urge Iraqi Kurds to drop referendum plan, hold talks
Vote will hurt Al-Abadi’s re-election chances: Washington
BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON: The UN and the US have urged Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani to drop plans for an independence referendum 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 seen by AFP, he proposed “structured, sustained, intensive and result-oriented partnership negotiations... on how to resolve all the problems and outstanding issues” between Baghdad and Irbil.
The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is embroiled in long-standing disputes with the federal government over oil exports, budget payments and control of ethnically divided areas.
Iraqi Kurdish lawmakers on Friday approved holding the referendum in the face of fierce opposition both from Baghdad and the Kurds’ international backers.
Kubis called for talks, overseen by the UN Security Council that would aim to reach a deal 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. ‘Not the right time,’
says Washington Washington put to one side its longstanding sympathy for its allies in Iraqi Kurdistan on Friday and sternly urged the region to call off its independence referendum.
Earlier, Iraqi Kurdish lawmakers had voted to approve the Sept. 25 vote that was set in motion by regional President Barzani, a Washington ally who has publicly kept open the option of postponing it.
Washington has long supported Kurdish autonomy and has relied on the region’s forces in the war against Daesh, but it fears that now is not the time for the people to seize their freedom.
US officials fear the vote, while not legally binding, will hurt Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s re-election chances; complicate ties with Turkey; and disrupt the war against Daesh.
“The United States has repeatedly emphasized to the leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government that the referendum is distracting from efforts to defeat ISIS (Daesh) and stabilize the liberated areas,” President Donald Trump’s White House said, in a statement.
“Holding the referendum in disputed areas is particularly provocative and destabilizing,” it warned. While Baghdad recognizes Kurdistan’s autonomy, the precise boundary between the region and the rest of Iraq is unclear.
Washington has repeatedly offered to help negotiate a long-term settlement between Irbil and Baghdad, but regional leaders — including Barzani — have been increasingly frustrated that warm words have not led to a precise diplomatic timetable.
This week, top US envoy Brett McGurk was again in Irbil and attempted to persuade the Kurdish leader to call off the highly-charged popular vote in exchange for a new diplomatic initiative.
Under this plan, a well-placed source told AFP, the international community will oversee negotiations on revenue sharing in Iraq’s oil budget and payment for Kurdish militia fighters.
Borders and military forces would remain in their current positions, and Baghdad would authorize Kurdistan to continue exporting the oil that it currently ships through Turkey in breach of the federal constitution.
Finally, Kurdish parties would take part in the Iraqi government and the 2018 elections.
Analysts, however, told AFP that this would not be enough at this stage to convince Barzani to hold off on an independence vote in which he has invested much of his domestic political capital.
“They were very unlikely to accept a deal unless the deal had some kind of iron-clad specificity and international guarantee,” said Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“The leaders of the US, Britain and the United Nations would have had to commit to the date by which Kurdistan and Iraq would have negotiated Kurdish sovereignty — or commit to supporting a Kurdish unilateral declaration of independence.”