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Kurdistan referendum to go ahead despite warnings

Autonomous region’s head of foreign relations tells Gulf News no better alternatives were forthcoming from those opposed to independence bid

  • Erbil International AirportImage Credit: Reuters
  • Erbil
    The growing city is full of construction.Image Credit: Matilde Gattoni/Getty Images
  • Falah MustafaImage Credit: AP
Gulf News

Dubai: Iraqi Kurds have made headlines for a few weeks now after they declared they were determined to go ahead with their independence referendum next month.

Neighbouring countries fear that an independent Kurdistan in Iraq would lead to similar moves given that Turkey, Iran and Syria all have sizable Kurdish populations.

The referendum has become a source of concern and contention for many countries. Although Iraqi Kurds do not have an independent state, they enjoy relative autonomy, especially after the US ouster of Saddam Hussain from Iraq’s presidency in 2003.

Turkey repeatedly declared its objection to the move and, on Wednesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, said that the referendum would worsen the situation in Iraq.

“In that country [Iraq], which has been through so many problems, a referendum on independence can make the situation even worse,” he said.

“God forbid, it could even bring it to civil war.”

Ankara and Tehran have already announced their opposition to the referendum.

Earlier, Iran warned that it would close its borders if the referendum were to be held.

The US has requested the Kurds to postpone the vote, saying that the September 25 referendum would detract from “more urgent priorities” in the region, such as eliminating Daesh.

However, Iraqi Kurds have dismissed such calls and warnings. A Kurdish delegation visited Baghdad earlier this week to discuss the matter, although details of the meetings have not been disclosed.

The Kurdistan Regional Government’s Head of Foreign Relations, Falah Mustafa, told Gulf News that no other alternative was offered by any of the opposing parties. Independence for Iraqi Kurds, he said, will bring the long awaited “better future,” and is not a move “against the interest of any country.”

The following are excerpts from his interview:

GN: Could you please give us more details on the Kurdish delegation’s visit to Baghdad? How big was the delegation? How long did the visit last? What was the goal of the visit?

FM: The delegation aimed at bring about constructive negotiations between Arbil and Baghdad.

It was inclusive and included members of Kurdish and minority groups including the two main ruling parties in Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and the Chief of Staff to the President of Kurdistan.

The visit was the first of a sequence of visits expected to last for a couple more days.

The high-level delegation will continue to hold several meetings with Iraqi officials in order to reach a better understanding in regards to recent political developments.

GN: Why are you insisting on the referendum’s date in September? What are the circumstances that make the move so timely, in your view?

FM: The KRG is not willing to change the date of the referendum since those who oppose the timing have failed to provide “the right time” for a vote on the right to self-determination.

Our leadership is keen to go ahead with it.

Those who oppose it and suggest that we delay it did not offer a better alternative for us; therefore, we neither see any convincing reason, nor have received any guarantees for postponing.

Iraq’s federalism failure has now compelled Kurdistan to seek a better future separately — as Iraq’s neighbour.

Hence, we want to pave the ground for future neighbourly cooperation with Iraq, and that is impossible under the current circumstances.

GN: In one of your press interviews, you were quoted as saying “the referendum is necessary to establish a healthy relationship with Baghdad”, what is your definition of the “healthy relations”?

FM: Our definition of healthy relations is a partnership where the actors in question are equals.

Since we have failed to be good partners in the so-called federal system in Iraq, we need to seek another alternative.

It will not be the end of the world when we decide that we cannot live together under one roof. Looking back at history, there are other nations that have accepted to be separate peacefully, through dialogue and now they enjoy very good relations.

Therefore, we believe that we need to communicate with Baghdad; we need to ensure that they understand our ambitions and plans, and that we do not want conflict but rather to open a new chapter for our relations where we can make room for friendship and partnership.

I believe that we can become better partners as two sovereign states.

It’s a fact of life that the Middle East region in the last hundred years had not seen stability and prosperity because of the wrongdoings of the past, denial of identity, and lack of social justice.

Today there is an opportunity for us to be courageous and to admit that we have failed in bringing about a genuine partnership; therefore engaging in a serious process of negotiations and communication with Baghdad is very important so that we communicate in order to prevent provocation.

We want Baghdad to be our partner in addressing this issue so that we can do it in such a way that we secure a strong long-term partnership with Baghdad.

GN: Iraq’s neighbouring countries, including Turkey and Iran warned of the consequences of declaring an independent Kurdistan, what is your comment?

FM: We have always wanted good neighbourly relations based on mutual respect, understanding, and benefit. We are for building bridges and we can assure them that a future independent Kurdistan would be a partner and ally and that this step will not go against the interest of these nations.

We want our neighbours and the whole world to understand that we have always stood for peace.

The relations between Baghdad and Arbil have not nearly been in the best interest of either side and therefore we cannot continue to insist on failure.

We believe that our neighbours, friends, and partners should not persist on a failed one-Iraq policy.

In order to prevent future confrontations, we need to address this issue now to preserve and promote stability and security.

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