Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1362, (28 September - 4 October 2017)
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1362, (28 September - 4 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

‘Unconstitutional’ vote

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi confirms Baghdad will not discuss the results of this week’s Iraqi Kurdish referendum, Nermeen Al-Mufti reports from Kirkuk

 A girl dressed in the colours of the Kurdish flag accompanies her mother on voting day
A girl dressed in the colours of the Kurdish flag accompanies her mother on voting day

Monday 25 September: a contradictory day in Iraq. Many people in the capital were sad. Baghdad’s streets were full of people condemning the referendum on Kurdish independence which they feared would lead to the partition of the country.

Mohamed Ali, a university student, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “we have always lived together with our Kurdish brothers, and we cannot imagine Iraq without the Kurds and other ethnicities.”

The mood in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region, was euphoric. Voters were dancing in the streets at the outcome of a referendum that could lead to the separation of Iraqi Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq.

Iraq’s neighbours, together with the EU, the UN and the US, had all asked Masoud Barzani, the outgoing president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), to postpone the referendum, or at the very least exclude disputed areas, among them the oil-rich and multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk.

Before the vote Kurdish officials announced that post-referendum the KRG would start negotiations with the Baghdad government and demand self-determination.

Barzani had said the referendum was non-binding, intended only to provide a mandate with which to negotiate — with Baghdad and neighbouring countries — the secession of the Kurdish-controlled region.

In a televised address on Tuesday, Barzani said the “yes” vote had won and he called on Iraq’s government to engage in “serious dialogue” instead of threatening the KRG with sanctions.

However, the Iraqi government has made it clear it will not hold talks with the KRG on the results of what it has termed an “unconstitutional” referendum on independence.

“We are not ready to discuss or have a dialogue on the results of the referendum because it is unconstitutional,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi said in a speech broadcast on state TV on Monday night.

“Most of the problems of the Kurdish Region are local, not with Baghdad, and they will only increase with calls for separation,” said Al-Abadi. “The economic and financial problems the region is suffering from are the result of corruption and maladministration.”

On Tuesday the Iraqi government gave the KRG three days to hand over control of its airports in order to avoid an international air embargo.

The measure was intended as retaliation for going ahead with the independence referendum. Last week Baghdad asked foreign states to halt direct flights to the international airports of Erbil and Sulaimaneya, in KRG territory. Iran was the only country to support the embargo, with Tehran halting all direct flights to Kurdistan.

The region’s Independent Higher Elections and Referendum Commission announced on Tuesday that 78 per cent of the region’s five million voters had participated in the referendum in the three northern provinces of Erbil, Sulaimaneya and Dohouk and in the so-called disputed areas, including Kirkuk. According to the Kurdish TV channel Rudaw an overwhelming majority — possibly more than 90 per cent — had voted in favour of independence.  

Omer Al-Salihi, a Turkmen journalist based in Kirkuk, told the Weekly that the Turkmen and a majority of Arabs had boycotted the referendum in Kirkuk and that a curfew was announced two hours before the polls closed to avoid clashes between Turkmen and Kurds.  

Many Turkmen had raised banners reading “Kirkuk is Turkmen and will stay Turkmen within Iraq.” Turkmen political, nationalist and religious parties have announced that they will refuse the results of the referendum.

It did not put a damper on Kurdish celebrations.

The Iraqi parliament in Baghdad held a session on Monday in which Al-Abadi said “every necessary measure” would be taken “to protect the sovereignty and unity of Iraq”. There were motions to force Kurdish officials in Baghdad who had participated in the referendum out of their jobs.

Hassan Darraji, a political analyst, told the Weekly that the KRG authorities had claimed that Kurds were being marginalised in Iraq. “But the president is a Kurd, the vice-speaker of the parliament is a Kurd, 24 ambassadors are Kurds, 13 deputy ministers are Kurds and the commander of the air force and other forces are Kurds.”

 On the KRG budget, a major point of dispute in the lead-up to the referendum, he said the KRG levied customs duties on the northern borders and enjoyed revenues from the northern oil fields, including those of Kirkuk. Yet over the last two years it had not made any contribution to the Iraqi federal budget.  

Alliance 38, a grouping of NGOs, journalists and activists in Iraq, published a communiqué on alleged violations in Kirkuk on Monday, saying that eyewitnesses had reported that some Arab families internally displaced in Kirkuk had been told by the Kurdish security forces (the Assayish) either to vote yes in the referendum or leave the city.

They had left, the communiqué said. It added that the same thing had happened with families from the Nineveh Plain, mostly Yazidis and Shabaks. Ali Al-Bayati, head of the Turkmen Rescue Foundation, was also quoted as saying that Turkmen families from Telafer in Kirkuk had been threatened by Kurdish forces.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed his “regret” that Iraq’s Kurds had gone ahead with the referendum. UN Spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Guterres had noted that the referendum was “unilaterally declared, included in disputed areas”, and was opposed by the Iraqi authorities and the international community.

The spokesman said Guterres regreted that opportunities for negotiations were ignored and viewed the decision to hold the vote as potentially destabilising.

Turkey and Iran have threatened to impose economic sanctions on Iraqi Kurdistan through closing borders. Iran has already closed its airspace between Iran and northern Iraq.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the Iraqi Kurds will “go hungry” if his country halts the flow of trucks and oil across the border with northern Iraq. He has warned that “all military and economic measures” are on the table against Turkey’s neighbour.

Turkey’s military confirmed that Turkey and Iraq will begin joint military exercises in Silopi, close to the border of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. According to media reports, the exercises began on Tuesday.

“It is a very hard time for the Iraqis and for us,” a Kurdish political analyst told the Weekly on condition of anonymity. “I wish Barzani had postponed the referendum and had gone for negotiations with Baghdad, especially since Baghdad had announced its readiness to liberate Hawija, 60km southwest of Kirkuk, the last stronghold of the Islamic State in Iraq.”

“We do not want another round of civil war. All the Iraqis, among them Kurds, are exhausted,” he said. Yet many other Kurds were being quoted as saying that an independent Kurdistan was worth every sacrifice.

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