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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Iraqi Kurdish referendum: Barzani says 'too late' to postpone vote

It comes despite increasing calls from Iraq's key allies, the United States, Iran and Turkey, for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to postpone the poll planned for Monday

Pro-independence supporters wrapped in Kurdish flags chant at a referendum rally in Erbil on September 22, 2017. Bram Janssen / AP
Pro-independence supporters wrapped in Kurdish flags chant at a referendum rally in Erbil on September 22, 2017. Bram Janssen / AP

Iraqi Kurdish president Masoud Barzani said on Saturday it was "too late" to postpone a highly contested independence referendum as he met with the French ambassador to Iraq.

“The decision to hold the referendum is not that of one or two parties, it is the decision of the Kurdish parliament and the people of Kurdistan," Mr Barzani told Francois Bartley.

It comes despite increasing calls from Iraq's key allies, the United States, Iran and Turkey, for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to postpone the vote planned for Monday.

Mr Barzani's assistant, Hemin Hawrami, also confirmed on Saturday that the referendum would not be postponed, tweeting that a Kurdish delegation was in Baghdad to deliver a message: "We r ready for talks after 25/9".

Meanwhile, Bafel Talabani, a senior member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the second largest party in Iraq's Kurdish region, announced on Facebook that his party had agreed the referendum should be "postponed" — though the post was deleted shortly after.

"PUK opposes holding referendum for now, and accepts a US alternative plan for negotiations", Mr Talabani, the eldest son of former Iraqi president Jalal Talabani, said in the post, calling for “serious discussions” with Baghdad.

Responding to Mr Talabani's comments, Hoshyar Zebari, a former Iraqi deputy prime minister and current member of the Kurdish region's referendum council, reiterated that the vote would not be postponed.

“The referendum does not mean the end of the world,” he said. “It is a simple democratic process for the people of Kurdistan to express their will, to decide their future.”

The KRG says the referendum is aimed at giving its autonomous territory a legitimate mandate to achieve independence from Iraq through dialogue with Baghdad and neighbouring powers Turkey and Iran. But the vote has plenty of opponents both outside and inside the Kurdish region.

Despite the Kurdish administration showing no signs of backing down, Shaswar Abdulwahid, head of the "No for now movement", continued his calls on Saturday for Iraqi Kurds to vote “No” to independence on Monday.

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Read more:

American envoy warns of 'consequences out of US control' if Kurds hold referendum

It's not just Iraqis — some Kurds oppose a risky independence referendum

Masoud Barzani: The 'servant of an independent Kurdistan'

A 'Yes' vote for Kurdish independence could be 'very destabilising for Iraq'

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He warned the Kurdistan region would encounter economic and political hardships if it voted 'Yes' in the referendum.

"Voting 'Yes' will allow officials to remain in power," he said. "They have distracted people with the referendum. It is still unclear whether [the referendum will be] held or not."

Earlier on Saturday, Mr Barzani postponed a scheduled press conference on the referendum, saying it would instead take place on Sunday but providing no other details.

Over the border in Turkey, officials pressed Iraqi Kurdish leaders to call off the vote as the Turkish parliament convened to renew a mandate for the country's military to intervene in Iraq and Syria.

Turkish prime minister Binali Yildirim described the upcoming referendum as "a mistake, and an adventure".

Ankara would take diplomatic, political and economic measures according to "developments on the ground", he said, adding that a cross-border operation was also an option.

Mr Yildirim said the vote would allow the military to get involved in "all kinds of developments" that threatened Turkey's security.

Turkey, which is battling a decades-long insurgency by Kurdish separatists, began military exercises close to the Iraqi border on Monday last week.

The Turkish military said on Saturday that "additional units joined exercises near the Iraqi border" as its chief of staff, General Hulusi Akar, welcomed his Iraqi counterpart, Gen Othman Al Ghanim, to the country.

The two men discussed the referendum and stressed the importance of maintaining Iraq's territorial integrity, the military said, referring to the vote as "illegitimate".