Iraq rejects talks on secession of Kurdish region
Baghdad believes talks would prompt Sunni areas to renew demand for autonomy
Kurds celebrate to show their support for the independence referendum in Duhok, Iraq, September 26th, 2017. Photograph: Ari Jalal/Reuters
The Iraqi government has rejected negotiations on secession of the Kurdish autonomous region and adjacent Kurdish annexed “disputed areas” following Monday’s referendum on Kurdish independence.
Initial results showed an overwhelming majority had voted Yes out of 72 per cent of eligible voters who took part.
The Shia fundamentalist-dominated government is adamantly opposed to talks with Kurdish leaders in Erbil, the Kurdish regional capital. Baghdad believes talks with the Kurds would prompt Sunni-majority provinces to renew their demand for autonomy or independence, finishing off Iraq as a state and precipitating massive sectarian and ethnic cleansing.
Since the referendum has taken place during the term of prime minister Haider al-Abadi, he could be replaced if he fails to act decisively. The Iraqi parliament has demanded the deployment of the army in the “disputed areas”, particularly the oil-producing Kurdish-occupied Kirkuk province, where 10 per cent of Iraq’s oil reserves are located.
Iranian-backed Shia militias belonging to national mobilisation units have threatened to invade Kirkuk.
Mr Abadi, who enjoys US backing, is also in a difficult political position as Iraq is set to hold parliamentary elections next spring and his predecessor and chief rival, Nuri al-Maliki, is seeking to oust him. Since Mr Maliki was responsible for persecuting and alienating Sunnis, encouraging them to turn to al-Qaeda and Islamic State, his return would be a disaster for the country.
If either the army or Shia militias advance on Kirkuk, Kurdish peshmerga fighters could be withdrawn from the battle against Islamic State in Hawija to defend nearby Kirkuk city and the oil fields. Local Arab and Turkmen (ethnic Turk) militias have said they will attack Kurdish peshmerga, risking civil war.
Facing separatist campaigns waged by their own Kurds, Iraq’s neighbours, Turkey and Iran, have denounced the referendum and called on Erbil to abandon the idea of independence. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called the vote “treachery” and says Ankara is considering a range of options from military intervention to sanctions.
Turkish troops and tanks have carried out exercises on the border with Iraq and Mr Erdogan has threatened to cut the flow of oil through the pipeline from Kirkuk to the Turkish export terminal on the Mediterranean, denying the Kurdish region its main source of revenue.
‘Left in the lurch’
“[They] will be left in the lurch when we start imposing our sanctions,” Mr Erdogan said in a speech broadcast live on television on Tuesday. “It will be over when we close the oil taps, all [their] revenues will vanish, and they will not be able to find food when our trucks stop going to northern Iraq.”
Tehran has been more measured. Ahead of the vote, Iran also conducted military manoeuvres on its border and closed its airspace to flights into and out of the Kurdish region, but frontier crossings are said to remain open. Iran’s parliament is due to meet on Wednesday to discuss the situation.
Facing demands from its Kurds for autonomy in a federal state, Damascus has said it is prepared to negotiate once Islamic State is defeated throughout Syria. During the war, Syrian Kurds have established a self-rule zone in the north but have also retained ties to the government. They say they do not want to follow the example of the Iraqi Kurds.
Israel is the only regional country to back the referendum and Kurdish independence, making the move all the more objectionable to Arabs, who fear the fragmentation of existing states.