U.S. Against Kurds Holding Referendum in September, Envoy Says

  • Independence vote held in near future would be destabilizing
  • U.S. envoy met with Iraqi, Kurd leaders in Baghdad last week

A referendum on independence in Iraq’s semi-autonomous and oil-rich Kurdish region should not take place in September as planned because it would be destabilizing at time when the fight against Islamic State isn’t yet won, the U.S. envoy to the coalition confronting the extremist group said.

“Having a referendum on such a fast timeline, particularly in disputed areas, would be, we think, significantly destabilizing and we’ve made those views very clear,” said Brett McGurk, who spoke to Iraqi and Kurdish leaders about the issue in Baghdad last week.

He said that Islamic State, which was driven out of Mosul this week, still occupies several areas in Iraq, and the Iraqi military and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters continue to be involved in operations against the group. “We do not think the referendum should happen in September,” McGurk said at a news conference in Washington on Thursday. 

The Kurds announced last month that they plan to hold the plebiscite on Sept. 25, to be followed by another -- for a new parliament and president -- on Nov. 6. The dates were set during a meeting between President Massoud Barzani and local political parties.

Iraqi officials have opposed the decision. Government spokesman Saad Al-Hadithi said in June that the relationship between Baghdad and the Kurdish region is determined by the Iraqi constitution and the Kurds cannot act unilaterally on statehood.

The Kurdistan Regional Government has been emboldened by the weakening of the central government in Baghdad as it has struggled to regain territory lost to Islamic State. When the Iraqi army deserted Kirkuk in 2014, Iraq’s Kurds took parts of the city and its environs and now control significant oil exports. Their leaders have frequently vowed to hold an independence referendum.

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