The U.S. and Saudi Arabia on Wednesday called on Iraq's Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to annul the referendum on independence planned for next Monday.
In a statement released by the U.S Department of State, spokeswoman Heater Nauert said, "The U.S. strongly opposes the Iraqi [KRG's] referendum on independence, planned for Sept. 25. All of Iraq's neighbors, and virtually the entire international community, also oppose this referendum. The U.S. urges Iraqi Kurdish leaders to accept the alternative, which is a serious and sustained dialogue with the central government, facilitated by the U.S. and the U.N., and other partners, on all matters of concern, including the future of the Baghdad-Irbil relationship."
"The costs of proceeding with the referendum are high for all Iraqis, including Kurds," the statement added.
Saudi Arabia also urged the KRG to call off the referendum, saying the latter should act in compliance with the international community and annul the referendum to prevent the regional threats that may result.
"The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia hopes [KRG] President [Masoud] Barzani will draw on his deep wisdom and experience and refrain from going through with this poll," a Saudi official, who preferred to remain anonymous, was quoted by the official Saudi Press Agency as saying.
Meanwhile, a high-level delegation from the KRG is expected to visit the Iraqi capital to discuss outstanding differences between Baghdad and Irbil, the KRG's administrative capital.
According to a statement released Wednesday by the office of Iraqi President Fuad Masum, KRG President Barzani has agreed to send a high-level KRG delegation to Baghdad on Thursday or Friday. The move comes only days before next week's controversial referendum on Kurdish regional independence.
Earlier Wednesday, Presidents Masum and Barzani met in the northern city of Sulaymaniyah in Iraq where they discussed regional developments and the upcoming referendum. "Both men stressed the need for constructive dialogue in resolving the outstanding points of contention [between Baghdad and Irbil]," the statement from Masum's office read.
"With this in mind, they decided to dispatch a high-level [KRG] delegation to Baghdad within the next two days," the statement said. Masum arrived in Sulaymaniyah on Wednesday morning where he urged KRG officials to postpone next week's referendum and resolve outstanding differences between the two sides through dialogue.
Iraq's Shiite ruling coalition, the National Alliance, which is also the alliance that Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is part of, has also indicated its opposition to the referendum.
Speaking to Reuters in an interview in Cairo, Ammar al-Hakim, the president of the group, said the decision is a unilateral one and dialogue with Baghdad should be established.
Turkmens express concern that KRG referendum could spark ethnic conflict
While international and regional actors urge the KRG to call off the independence referendum on Sept. 25, Iraqi Turkmen Front (ITF) representative in Turkey Hicran Kazancı said holding a referendum could lead to ethnic conflict in the region.
Daily Sabah spoke with Hicran Kazancı in a bid to understand the Turkmens' position as well as their concerns regarding the referendum, which is opposed by international and regional actors.
Kazancı stressed that that this referendum will spark an ethnic war in the Middle East, saying: "There would be conflict between Turkmens and Kurds and Arabs and Kurds, if the referendum is held." Stating that the signals of a possible conflict are already being seen, as Kurds carrying flags attacked Turkmen institutions on Sept. 20, Kazancı said: "We are running out of patience." He also said that Turkmens will, therefore, oppose and boycott the referendum, adding that "If these events continue, the tension could escalate into Turkmen-Kurd and Arab-Kurdish conflict in the region." He also noted that holding a referendum is not beneficial for the Kurdish people.
A peshmerga group attacked the headquarters of the Turkmen National Movement Party on Monday and clashes broke out, during which one Kurdish-speaking person died and two others were wounded.
Agreeing on the prevalent opinion that the referendum will have potentially disastrous effects in the region, Kazancı said this referendum is likely to also spark the disintegration of the Middle East, adding that what will happen in the Middle East will have profound effects on Turkey, Iran, Iraq and other Arab countries, unlike the U.S. or Western countries. He went on to say that the referendum is the second step in attempts to divide the Middle East after the struggle against Daesh, adding that the peshmerga forces were supported by the West so that the KRG could expand its territories in the region.
'Turkmens pleased with Turkey's actions'
As for the expectations Turkmens have for Turkey, Kazancı said Turkey's actions in the region are met with relief from the Turkmens, who are very content regarding Turkey's stance on the issue. "Turkey is not the old Turkey. Therefore, it will not allow for a formation of borders that threaten its own security," Kazancı said. Stating that KRG President Barzani aims to deceive the Kurds via fake news by spreading false rumors that Turkey is supporting its upcoming referendum with subtlety, he also emphasized that Turkey's recent military drill conducted near the Iraqi border is proof of Turkey's decisive stance against the KRG's referendum decision. He also said the Turkmens are pleased with Turkey's actions and were content with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's speech at the U.N. General Assembly.
Turkey launched on Sept. 18 an unannounced military drill near its border with Iraq, just a week before the KRG's referendum, which is interpreted by experts as a stern warning that explicitly signals that Turkey will not condone developments in the region. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said last weekend that Turkey will not allow Iraq's territorial integrity to be compromised, as Ankara shares a 350-kilometer-long (217-mile-long) border with the country.
He went on to say that Turkey will not allow for any formation that threatens Turkey's security in any way, as Turkey has already conducted Operation Euphrates Shield against the PKK's Syrian offshoot the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in northern Syria amid efforts to prevent the formation of a state like that of the KRG, Kazancı said. He added that Turkey and Iran, who both strongly oppose the referendum, must continue to collaborate with the Iraqi central government.
'West responsible for Barzani's insistence'
Touching upon claims that the referendum could be canceled, Kazancı said he does not expect KRG President Barzani to cancel the referendum, as the West has not shown a strong reaction to the Sept. 25 referendum, adding that Barzani's insistence in holding the referendum is propelled by the West's lack of concrete action in response to the matter.
Kazancı said even though the Kurdish people do not want to say "yes" to the referendum amid economic and security-related problems, the referendum will yield a result that is in favor of Barzani. Kazancı added that he does not believe there will be a fair election, asserting: "The prominent powers are directing the outcome of the elections as they wish."
'Kirkuk's inclusion in referendum unconstitutional'
Explaining that the holding of a referendum in Kirkuk is unconstitutional, Kazancı said Kirkuk's future cannot be determined by a referendum that is not approved by the Iraqi central government, noting: "The Iraqi Constitution stipulates that in the case of Kirkuk's situation, the referendum can only be held if the Iraqi Parliament approves it."
Kazancı added that the Kurds implemented the decision without the participation of the Turkmen and Arab populations, reiterating that the Turkmens do not accept the unconstitutional referendum decision and will boycott it. Noting that the Kurdish population in Kirkuk increased as a result of political maneuvers, Kazancı said Kirkuk has become an international issue which is not limited to the row between Bagdad and Irbil.
He also said the Turkmens do not have equal rights with the Kurds, as the latter have high-level positions in the legal administrations and local authority positions in Kirkuk, unlike the Turkmens, despite the fact that the Turkmens have a very large population in Kirkuk. He added that the Turkmens have been unable to acquire their rights in society since 2003, when a massive transformation took place following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He also noted that the Turkmens in Kirkuk have a multifaceted culture rooted in Ottoman tradition which allows them to live in a multiethnic environment.