Leader is­sues stern warn­ing on in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - WORLD - By Su­san­nah Ge­orge and Qas­sim Ab­dul-Zahra Su­san­nah Ge­orge and Qas­sim Ab­dul-Zahra are Associated Press writ­ers.

BAGHDAD — Iraq is pre­pared to in­ter­vene mil­i­tar­ily if the Kur­dish re­gion’s planned in­de­pen­dence ref­er­en­dum re­sults in vi­o­lence, Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi told the Associated Press in an in­ter­view Saturday.

If the Iraqi pop­u­la­tion is “threat­ened by the use of force out­side the law, then we will in­ter­vene mil­i­tar­ily,” he said.

Iraq’s Kur­dish re­gion plans to hold the ref­er­en­dum on sup­port for in­de­pen­dence from Iraq on Sept. 25 in three gov­er­norates that make up their au­ton­o­mous re­gion, and in dis­puted ar­eas con­trolled by Kur­dish forces but which are claimed by Baghdad.

“If you chal­lenge the con­sti­tu­tion and if you chal­lenge the bor­ders of Iraq and the bor­ders of the re­gion, this is a pub­lic in­vi­ta­tion to the coun­tries in the re­gion to vi­o­late Iraqi bor­ders as well, which is a very dan­ger­ous es­ca­la­tion,” al-Abadi said.

The lead­ers of Iraq’s Kur­dish re­gion have said they hope the ref­er­en­dum will push Baghdad to come to the ne­go­ti­at­ing table and cre­ate a path for in­de­pen­dence. How­ever, al-Abadi said such ne­go­ti­a­tions would likely be com­pli­cated by the ref­er­en­dum vote.

“It will make it harder and more dif­fi­cult,” he said, but added, “I will never close the door to ne­go­ti­a­tions. Ne­go­ti­a­tions are al­ways pos­si­ble.”

Iraq’s Kurds have come un­der in­creas­ing pres­sure to call off the vote from re­gional pow­ers and the United States, a key ally, as well as Baghdad. In a state­ment re­leased late Fri­day, the White House called for the Kur­dish re­gion to aban­don the ref­er­en­dum “and en­ter into se­ri­ous and sus­tained di­a­logue with Baghdad.”

Ten­sions be­tween Ir­bil and Baghdad have flared in the lead-up to the Sept. 25 vote. Ma­soud Barzani, the pres­i­dent of Iraq’s au­ton­o­mous Kur­dish re­gion, has threat­ened vi­o­lence if Iraqi mil­i­tary or Shi­ite mili­tias at­tempt to move into dis­puted ter­ri­to­ries that are now un­der the con­trol of Kur­dish fight­ers known as Pesh­merga, specif­i­cally the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

“It’s chaotic there,” Muham­mad Mahdi alBay­ati, a se­nior leader of Iraq’s mostly Shi­ite fight­ers known as the pop­u­lar mo­bi­liza­tion forces, said last week, de­scrib­ing Kirkuk.

Al-Bay­ati’s forces — sanc­tioned by Baghdad, but many with close ties to Iran — are de­ployed around Kirkuk as well as other dis­puted ter­ri­to­ries in Iraq’s north.

“Every­one is un­der pres­sure,” he said, ex­plain­ing that he feared a rogue group of fight­ers could trig­ger larger clashes. “Any­thing could be the spark that burns it all down.”

Al-Abadi said he is fo­cused on le­gal re­sponses to the Kur­dish ref­er­en­dum on in­de­pen­dence. Last week Iraq’s par­lia­ment re­jected the ref­er­en­dum in a vote boy­cotted by Kur­dish law­mak­ers.

Iraq’s Kurds have long held a dream of state­hood. Bru­tally op­pressed un­der Sad­dam Hus­sein, whose mil­i­tary in the 1980s killed at least 50,000 of them, many with chem­i­cal weapons, Iraq’s Kurds es­tab­lished a re­gional gov­ern­ment in 1992 af­ter the U.S. en­forced a no-fly zone across the north fol­low­ing the Gulf War.

Af­ter the 2003 U.S.-led in­va­sion ousted Sad­dam, the re­gion se­cured con­sti­tu­tional recog­ni­tion of its au­ton­omy, but re­mained part of the Iraqi state.

Karim Kadim / Associated Press

Prime Min­is­ter Haider al-Abadi says he will in­ter­vene mil­i­tar­ily if the vote leads to vi­o­lence.

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