Turkey urges Iraqi Kurds to abandon independence vote

In an official visit to Baghdad and Erbil, Turkey’s foreign minister lobbies Kurds to cancel next month’s referendum.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has urged Iraqi Kurds to cancel an independence referendum planned for next month.

Speaking to reporters in Baghdad on Wednesday, Cavusoglu called the referendum a “mistake” and said he had travelled to Iraq to underline the importance of the country’s “territorial and political integrity”. 

“Our expectation from Erbil is clear, that is the cancellation of the referendum, as the interests and future of the Kurds lie in a united Iraq,” he said.

Cavusoglu will meet Massoud Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), in Erbil later in the day. 

READ MORE: The looming question of Kurdish independence in Iraq

Kurds have been seeking an independent state since at least the end of World War One, when colonial powers divided up the Middle East and left Kurdish-populated territory split between modern-day Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Turkey, which has a large Kurdish population and is battling Kurdish rebels, has close ties with Iraq’s autonomous region but is strongly opposed to an independent Kurdish state.

Iran and Syria also oppose an independent Kurdistan.

Can Iraq’s Kurdish region gain independence?

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s government has rejected the planned referendum as “unilateral” and unconstitutional.

The United States and other Western nations fear the vote could ignite a fresh conflict with Baghdad and possibly neighbouring countries, diverting attention from the ongoing war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS). 

‘When is the right time?’

Earlier this month, Rex Tillerson, the US secretary of state, formally asked Barzani to postpone the referendum.

But Kurdish leaders said they have already waited too long.

“In 100 years we haven’t had the right time, when will be the right time for the referendum?” Sadi Ahmed Pire, a spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, told Al Jazeera.

“We have our weaknesses, but they are our own, not imported from somewhere else.”

The referendum is expected to take place on September 25.

Kurdish officials emphasise that a yes vote would not lead to an immediate break with Baghdad, but rather a long process of negotiating an amicable secession.

With a population of about 5 million, Iraq’s Kurdish region already enjoys a high degree of autonomy, including its own parliament and armed forces.

Since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, relations between the region and Baghdad have become strained over a range of issues.

Baghdad stopped payments to the KRG in 2014. 

Contentious issues include the sharing of oil revenues and control of some areas, such as the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies