Kirkuk’s inclusion in KRG independence vote may put region in further jeopardy

YUNUS PAKSOY @yunuspaksoy
ANKARA
Published 31.08.2017 00:04
Updated 31.08.2017 00:06
Kirkuk provincial Governor, Najm al-Din Karim (L), takes part in the vote at the Kirkuk Governorate Council on Aug. 29, over the participation of Kirkuk in Iraqi Kurdistan's independence referendum.
Kirkuk provincial Governor, Najm al-Din Karim (L), takes part in the vote at the Kirkuk Governorate Council on Aug. 29, over the participation of Kirkuk in Iraqi Kurdistan's independence referendum.

Experts say Kirkuk province's decision to participate in the planned KRG independence referendum will cause new conflicts in the region, creating an environment for further clashes

The Kirkuk Provincial Council's (KPC) decision earlier this week to join the vote on the independence referendum of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in late September might have further serious implications for the region, experts said. The KPC voted Tuesday in favor of joining the planned Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum that will be held on Sept. 25. Turkmen council member Ali Mehdi told Anadolu Agency (AA) that 24 members attended the session, and the members who did not attend would apply to Iraq's Supreme Court regarding the vote.

Turkmen and Arab deputies boycotted the decision. There are 26 Kurdish members on the KPC, along with nine Turkmen and six Arab members. Bilgay Duman, an expert on Iraqi affairs at the Middle East Strategies Research Center (ORSAM), said that the crisis has already reached outside Kirkuk. "It has become an international matter rather than a regional one. Most major powers are against it," Duman said, adding that the independence referendum would lead to greater implications given that even the Kirkuk crisis has led to escalated tensions. Ershad Salihi, the leader of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, blasted the KPC's decision, saying that it is "against Article 143 of the Iraqi constitution that defines the borders of the Kurdish region," namely the KRG.

"The referendum will put Iraq on a dangerous track," Salihi contended.

Can Acun, a Middle East expert at the Ankara-based Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) think tank, said that Kirkuk's inclusion in the referendum, which is highly likely to result in the annexation of the town, is unacceptable for Ankara.

The KRG has been trying to exploit the process after the U.S. invasion of Iraq by annexing Kirkuk, Acun said, and "such a move would form an environment susceptible to clashes."

Kirkuk is one of the disputed areas between the Iraqi central government and the KRG, and its future will be up for vote in the upcoming referendum, which troubles Ankara. Ankara is not willing to let the Turkmen-populated city be annexed by the KRG.

The Foreign Ministry previously expressed its frustration and concerns about the decision to hold the referendum about the future of Kirkuk, noting that unilateral steps regarding the status of the city will damage dialogue between those representing different ethnic and religious groups as well as breach the Iraqi constitution.

"While holding the referendum would already be a mistake in itself, the decision approved today [Aug. 29] by the Kirkuk Provincial Council to include Kirkuk in the referendum has added a new element to the chain of mistakes and, as such, constituted another severe violation of the Iraqi constitution," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Aug. 29, adding that "the unacceptable decision of the Kirkuk Provincial Council has been boycotted by the Turkmen and Arab groups – the main constituents of Kirkuk."

Iran also warned the Iraqi province of Kirkuk yesterday against taking part in next month's KRG independence referendum, saying it is "wrong, provocative and unacceptable."

A statement from the Foreign Ministry described the referendum as "dangerous" and said it had been rejected by the Iraqi central government, the United Nations and many countries in the region and beyond.

It "does not help recent dialogue in Baghdad to resolve existing issues and will affect Iraq's national capacity and power in stabilizing that country's victories over terrorism," the statement quoted ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi as saying.

Duman called on the KRG to be more responsible. "There will be mounting pressure on Irbil. Turkey also has much leverage on the KRG. In addition, Ankara will probably get much closer ties with Baghdad."

Turkey's ambassador to Baghdad, Fatih Yıldız, also stressed that the Turkish government will not tolerate the inclusion of Kirkuk in the independence vote. "We had said that the independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan is a mistake. Including Kirkuk in the referendum would add to the string of mistakes. It cannot be accepted," he said via his official Twitter account on Aug. 29.

The Turkish government has previously blasted the KRG for its independence ambitions. "We would like Iraq to continue as a state of all Iraqis. As such, we do not find it right to create a new problem area in a region that already has many problems. We think that this decision is irresponsible," Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım said in early June.

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