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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

Iraq's Kurds 'might hold off independence referendum' in return for concessions from Baghdad

It comes amid warnings by Iran and Turkey that the planned independence vote could lead to civil war and negative consequences for the region.

The Iraqi Kurdish independence vote might be postponed in return for economic and political concessions from Baghdad, a senior Kurdish official has said.

According to Mala Bakhtiar, executive secretary of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan Politburo, a Kurdish delegation is in Baghdad to discuss proposals from the central government about the possibility of postponing the September 25 referendum.

The United States, along with Iran, Turkey and other western nations, fear the vote could ignite a fresh conflict with Baghdad, distracting ongoing efforts in the war against ISIL militants in Iraq and Syria.

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson asked the president of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government, Massoud Barzani, to postpone the referendum nearly two weeks ago.

"What thing would Baghdad be prepared to offer to the [Kurdish] region" in return for postponing the referendum, said Mr Bakhtiar, speaking about the talks with the Shiite Muslim-led Baghdad ruling coalition.

Baghdad should be ready to help the Kurds avert their economic crisis by settling debts owed by the KRG, he said from the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya.

He estimated the debt at US$10 to $12 billion (Dh36.7bn to Dh44bn), about equal to the KRG's annual budget, owed to public works contractors and civil servants and Kurdish peshmerga fighters who have not been fully paid for several months.

Baghdad should also commit politically to agree to settling the issue of disputed regions, such as the oil-rich area of Kirkuk where Arab and Turkmen communities also live, he said.

The Kurdish delegation would then convey the proposals to Kurdish political parties to make a decision on whether they are good enough to justify a postponment of the vote, he said, insisting on the Kurdish right to hold the vote at a later date.

"We don't accept to postpone the referendum with nothing in return and without fixing another time to hold it," he said.

It comes amid warnings by Iran and Turkey that the planned independence vote could lead to civil war and negative consequences for the region.

Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last Wednesday a referendum on independence in Iraq "can make the situation even worse".

"God forbid, it could even bring it to civil war," he told state broadcaster TRT Haber in his strongest warning yet.

Turkey has a substantial Kurdish minority, which by some estimates, makes up about 25 per cent of its population of just under 80 million.

After talks with Turkey's president last Wednesday, Iran's armed forces chief-of-staff General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri also said: "Both sides stressed that if the referendum would be held, it will be the basis for the start of a series of tensions and conflicts inside Iraq, the consequences of which will affect neighbouring countries."

"Holding the referendum will get Iraq, but also Iran and Turkey involved and that's why the authorities of the two countries emphasise that it is not possible and should not be done," he was quoted by Iran's official IRNA news agency as saying.

Baghdad stopped payments from the Iraqi federal budget to the KRG in 2014 after the Kurds began exporting oil independently from Baghdad, via a pipeline to Turkey.

The Kurds say they need the extra revenue to cope with increased costs incurred by the war against ISIL and a large influx into KRG territory of displaced people.

* reporting from Reuters and Agence France-Presse

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