There will be a "price to pay" if Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) goes ahead with a planned independence referendum, Ankara warned Thursday.
"The KRG should be aware that there will most certainly be a price to pay for insisting on its approach for a referendum despite all of our friendly recommendations," the Turkish Foreign Ministry said in a statement yesterday, describing the "increasingly emotional statements" of the KRG leadership in favor of independence "alarming."
"In this respect, we are calling on the KRG to act with common sense and to give up its erroneous approach [to regional autonomy] as soon as possible," the ministry's statement said.
Ankara expressed its support for the decision made in Iraqi parliament Tuesday to oppose the independence vote, calling on the government in Baghdad to negotiate with the Erbil-based KRG.
Iraqi parliamentarians on Tuesday voted to reject the nonbinding referendum planned to be held on Sept. 25, authorizing the Iraqi prime minister to take all measures necessary to preserve Iraq's unity.
The Turkish Foreign Ministry stated that the decision in Iraqi parliament was a "clear expression of the importance that was attached on Iraq's political unity and territorial integrity." Under the leadership of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Baghdad had previously rejected the referendum as unilateral and unconstitutional.
Ankara wants Baghdad and Erbil to resolve the dispute through dialogue and to conduct relations in a constitutional manner in accordance with justice and the rule of law, the statement added.
Presidential spokesperson İbrahim Kalın also said Thursday that the KRG should immediately cancel its plans to hold the referendum on Sept 25.
"This decision will not solve the problems it is supposed to confront, it will make everything even more complicated, it will push [the KRG] to greater isolation. No country other than Israel supports the independence referendum. We have always had good relations with northern Iraq, and we want to keep those relations with Iraqi Kurds that way," Kalın said, adding that the KRG should refrain from taking steps that would overshadow and sabotage bilateral relations.
The spokesperson also touched upon Kirkuk, which decided to take part in the September 25 referendum despite not being a part of KRG territory.
"Kirkuk does not belong to the KRG. Trying to create such a de facto situation is also unacceptable. I would like to express that we are against all kinds of orders that will change the historical and cultural identity of Kirkuk and change its demographic structure," Kalın said.
He said that Turkey would not overlook the creation of a chaotic environment in the area where Turkmens, Arabs and Kurds try to live in peace and comfort together.
"We call on [the KRG] to immediately give up the referendum decision and take steps to resolve the problems between Erbil and Baghdad within the territorial integrity of Iraq," Kalın added.
'Barzani's referendum decision a historic mistake'
Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdağ also urged the KRG to cancel the referendum.
"Barzani's referendum decision is a historic mistake. Turkey will [continue to] adhere to policies which take the territorial integrity of Iraq into foremost consideration," Minister Bozdağ said yesterday in an interview with Anadolu Agency.
"The referendum over northern Iraq must be cancelled. If the decision to hold the referendum is not annulled, there will be a heavy cost and retribution," he said, adding that a referendum would erode peace in the region and bring increased security risks.
A "yes" vote in the independence referendum would not spell immediate independence for the Kurdish region, since the referendum does not have legal force. However, Kurdish officials say they will use it to pressure the Iraqi government in Baghdad to come to the negotiating table and formalize their independence bid.
Meanwhile, Deputy chairman of the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in charge of foreign relations, Mehdi Eker, told a group of journalists yesterday that Turkey would consider the referendum in the KRG null and void if it were to commence.
"We do not know if this referendum will take place, but there are those who favor this referendum, and there are opponents. What if this takes place despite everything? In accordance to the Iraqi constitution, it will be considered null and void by us," Eker said.
Stressing that such a referendum would have negative implications and outcomes in the future, Eker said that they have already warned the KRG.
"We have advised from the very beginning that the referendum in northern Iraq should be canceled, taking into consideration the Iraqi constitution and taking into account the possible consequences that will arise in that framework."
The deputy AK Party chairman underscored that the written statement by the Foreign Ministry was spot-on.
"[The KRG is] our neighbor country. As we have warned, the developments that could unfold were also expressed on various platforms. Today, the statement made by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is also appropriate," he said.
Since the KRG announced its plan to hold the referendum, it has gained little support from the international community and has instead been met with harsh criticism.
The U.S. and other Western nations fear that the Sept. 25 vote in Iraqi Kurdistan could ignite a new conflict with Baghdad and possibly neighboring countries, diverting attention from the war against Daesh terrorists in Iraq and Syria.
According to the KRG main opposition Gorran Movement's Diplomatic Relations Representative Hoshyar Omar, the U.S. coalition against Daesh on demanded a delay of the Kurdish independence referendum on Wednesday.
Envoy Brett H. McGurk met with the Gorran Movement's leader, Omar Sayyid Ali, Wednesday in the province of Sulaymaniyah in northern Iraq. McGurk was scheduled to meet with KRG leader Massoud Barzani yesterday.
Turkey, along with Iraq, Iran and Syria, oppose the idea of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan.
The EU also declared its support for the territorial integrity of Iraq, while the U.S. and the Kurdish opposition Gorran Movement demanded that the referendum be postponed.
Only Israel openly supports the independence referendum and the KRG's autonomy bid. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu endorsed the independence of the KRG yesterday, saying, "[Israel] supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state."
With a population of around 5 million people, Iraq's Kurdish region already enjoys a high degree of autonomy. Despite having its own parliament and armed forces, the KRG has clashed with the central administration in Baghdad over the distribution of oil revenues and control of some areas that fall under the governance of the central Iraqi administration.
'Kirkuk governor dismissed from post'
The Iraqi parliament yesterday voted in favor of dismissing the governor of Kirkuk from office upon the request of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
Al-Abadi reportedly made the call to remove the governor from office after Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim decided last month to take part in the controversial independence referendum set for Sept. 25 by the KRG.
In Kirkuk last month, local lawmakers voted in favor of participating in the referendum. However, 14 lawmakers from local minorities – Turkmens and Arabs – boycotted the vote, so it was the Kurdish members of the provincial parliament who pushed the measure through.
Karim first drew attention when he called on Kurdish members in the Kirkuk Provincial Council (KPC) to pass a decision to raise KRG flags over government buildings in the province, while also for a supporter of the independence vote, saying a "yes" result would mean more independence for the KRG.
The unilateral decision was condemned by the Iraqi central government. Karim was also recently accused of dispatching 200 armed PKK militants to a military base located in Kirkuk.
Further adding to the explosive mix, the KRG has expanded control beyond their enclave's formal borders, increasing the size of Iraqi Kurdistan by more than half. While fighting with Daesh, they seized parts of the northern Nineveh province and the oil-rich central region of Kirkuk, territory claimed by the Baghdad government.
The Kurds say they intend to keep those areas. Some will likely be bargaining chips in negotiations on independence – but they could also become flashpoints for violence.
In a recent sermon, the leader of a powerful Shiite militia warned that his forces were ready to fight for those territories, saying that, if the independence referendum prevails, they would be considered Iraqi lands occupied by Kurds.
"We have experience in dealing with occupation forces," Sheikh Qais al-Khazali told worshippers, referring to the fight his group Asaib Ahl al-Haq previously waged against U.S. troops in Iraq.
The results of the KRG referendum on Sept. 25 could mark an important, historic shift in Iraq. Since Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003, the Kurdish government has held off on dreams of statehood, saying it would try to work within a united Iraq, albeit with a large degree of autonomy. A vote for independence would proclaim the KRG's determination to go it alone.
If they were to eventually break away from Baghdad, it would be the most significant redrawing of borders in the Middle East since the creation of Israel in 1948. It will split Iraq, tearing away a Switzerland-sized chunk, including key oil resources, leaving the remainder with an Arab population split between a Shiite Muslim majority and Sunni minority. The Kurdish "self-rule" zone officially makes up about 10 percent of Iraq's territory, which has a population of about 3 million - around 8 percent of Iraq's total populace of 37 million.
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