x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 23 November 2017

Turkey warns Kurdish leaders of civil war risk if they proceed with independence referendum

Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region has said it will hold a referendum on independence on September 25, brushing aside international warnings — including from Turkey — that a positive outcome could trigger conflict with Baghdad

Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, pictured here in Beijing on August 3, 2017, has warned that the Kurdish independence referendum could bring Iraq to civil war. Roman Pilpey - Pool / Getty Images
Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, pictured here in Beijing on August 3, 2017, has warned that the Kurdish independence referendum could bring Iraq to civil war. Roman Pilpey - Pool / Getty Images

Turkey warned Iraq's Kurdish leaders on Wednesday of the risk of civil war if they proceed with plans to hold a referendum on independence.

"In a country like Iraq, which has been through so many problems, a referendum on independence … God forbid, it could even bring it to civil war," said Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region has said it will hold a referendum on independence on September 25, brushing aside international warnings — including from Turkey — that a positive outcome could trigger conflict with Baghdad.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in June strongly criticised the referendum plan, calling it "an error" and "a threat" to Iraq's territorial integrity.

"The fundamental reason for our opposition to this referendum is the importance of preserving Iraq's territorial and political integrity," Mr Erdogan's spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, reiterated in a radio interview on Wednesday, denying any ill will towards the Kurds.

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Turkey has a substantial Kurdish minority which some estimates put at a quarter of the total population of just under 80 million.

Ankara has in recent years forged strong ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq but is extremely wary of any move towards independence by the region.

Turkish energy minister Berat Albayrak said last week the referendum would "harm energy co-operation with northern Iraq's Kurdish regional authority". The Kurdistan Regional Government currently pumps hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day to Turkey's Ceyhan export terminal.

The latest warnings from Turkey come as the Kurdish region's referendum delegation meets with Iraqi officials in Baghdad this week to discuss the upcoming vote.

On Wednesday, the delegation met with Iraqi parliamentary speaker Salim Al Jabouri and vice president Nouri Al Maliki.

Both officials stressed the need for the Kurdish independence referendum to have a “constitutional framework”, warning that otherwise there was a risk of dispute between Erbil and Baghdad.

"The Kurdish referendum needs to be in line with the Iraq's constitution in order to maintain security and stability within the country," said Abdel Al Malik Husseini, spokesman for the speaker of the Iraqi parliament.

Mr Al Jabouri, meanwhile, stressed the need for Baghdad to have an open dialogue with Erbil in order to avoid any political or security issues and to achieve "Iraqi unity".

For his part, Mr Al Maliki said that if the referendum is carried out within the framework of the Iraqi constitution then it will be "an acceptable move". If it is not, he added, then "Baghdad and Erbil will be faced with many disputes".

"Amendments to the constitution may be needed to allow Kurdish referendum," he said.

The meetings came a day after the delegation held talks with Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi during which they discussed Kurdish independence, as well as the issue of combating terrorism.

"We came to an agreement on issues that unite Iraq and combating terrorism," Mr Al Abadi's office said on Twitter on Wednesday. "Talks with the Kurdish delegation were carried out in accordance with the interests of the country, and an atmosphere of respect and understanding dominated the meeting."

On the question of the Kurdish referendum, however, Mr Al Abadi said the "redrawing of the borders, inside Iraq, may lead to tragedies".

The autonomous Kurdish region already acts like a "state with an independent economy and army", he said, adding that a referendum at this stage was not a “priority”.

Mr Al Abadi’s office said an agreement was made to continue constructive dialogue with the delegation, however, adding that Baghdad was serious about working in the shared interests of Iraqis — though while still protecting the integrity of Iraq.

The referendum is also opposed by the key international supporters of the Kurdish region, including Iran, Germany and, to a lesser extent, the United States.

In June, the US state department said it was concerned the referendum in northern Iraq would distract from "more urgent priorities" such as the defeat of ISIL.

The Kurds are viewed as the world's largest stateless people, with most spread between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. It is only in Iraq where they have achieved a recognised autonomy.