- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 16, 2017

A looming vote by northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, setting the stage for the possible secession of the region from the country, is illegal in terms of the country’s constitution, a top Iraqi diplomat said Sunday.

The planned independence referendum vote, called by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and slated for September, has put the Kurdish region’s capital of Erbil on “a full road of danger,” Iraqi Ambassador to Iran Rajeh Saber Abboud al-Mousavi told Iranian state-run news outlet Mehr News.

“The Iraqi constitution, which 10 years ago spoke to Iraqis and aroused the satisfaction of all, including the Kurds and the Arabs, guarantees the unity of Iraq, and everyone should abide by this law. The referendum is clearly against the law,” Mr. al-Mousavi said.

Officials in Kurdistan and their representatives in Washington say Erbil’s massive contribution to the fight against Islamic State in Iraq has placed the semi-autonomous region in a perfect political position to push for independence.

Government leaders in Erbil pushed for the vote, in part, as a way to persuade Baghdad to provide much needed services and supplies to the northern Iraqi territory as outlined in the constitution. Tons of food, fuel, medical supplies and other material from the central government, promised under the constitution, have yet to make it across KRG borders.

To that end, the push for Kurdish independence is more of a negotiating tactic than a tangible effort to break from Baghdad, KRG representative to Iran Nazim Dabagh said Sunday.

“For now, we do not have the intention of separating,” Mr. Dabagh said in an interview with Agence France-Presse from Tehran. “We don’t feel that Iraq accepts us. For this reason, we seek to use appropriate opportunities — in order to demand our rights. If they [Iraq] don’t want to solve our problems, our people are ready to sacrifice.”

Mr. al-Mousavi on Sunday rejected Erbil’s claims of the vote being used to drive the central government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to the negotiating table. Iraqi Kurds already have the right to send representatives to the Iraqi parliament while also benefitting from revenue sharing from northern Iraq’s lucrative oil fields in Kirkuk.

Referendum critics continue to claim the move is a thinly veiled power grab by KRG President Masoud Barzani, who they argue is attempting to expand Kurdistan’s territorial borders outlined in the Iraqi constitution. A successful referendum vote and subsequent independence bid could bring the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other key territory under Erbil’s control.

Washington also opposes the upcoming referendum vote over concern the effort will destabilize the fragile Iraqi coalition battling the Islamic State.

The timing of the vote and the speed in which officials from the Kurdistan Regional Government are pushing to hold the vote could put Baghdad in a politically dangerous position, as the central government attempts to find common ground within the country’s sectarian conflicts for a post-IS Iraq, Brett McGurk, special presidential envoy for the global coalition to defeat ISIS, said Thursday.

“We think that under the Iraqi constitution, there’s an important process of dialogue that has to take place, and having a referendum on such a fast timeline, particularly in disputed areas, would be, we think, significantly destabilizing,” Mr. McGurk told reporters after a anti-ISIS coalition meeting at the State Department.

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