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.”

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