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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 September 2018

US urges Iraqi Kurdish region to call off independence referendum 

Washington has long supported Kurdish autonomy and relies on Kurdish forces in the war against ISIL. But it fears the referendum could hurt Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi's reelection chances, complicate ties with Turkey and disrupt the battle against ISIL

Iraqi Kurds wave Kurdish flags next to a poster of KRG president Masoud Barzani in Erbil on September 13, 2017, as they urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum. Safin Hamed / AFP
Iraqi Kurds wave Kurdish flags next to a poster of KRG president Masoud Barzani in Erbil on September 13, 2017, as they urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum. Safin Hamed / AFP

The United States has urged Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region to call off a referendum on independence after lawmakers voted to approve the September 25 poll.

Washington has long supported Kurdish autonomy and relies on Kurdish forces in the war against ISIL. But it fears the referendum, while not legally binding, could hurt Iraqi prime minister Haider Al Abadi's reelection chances, complicate ties with Turkey — which is fighting a war at home with Kurdish militants — and disrupt the battle against ISIL.

"The United States has repeatedly emphasised to the leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government that the referendum is distracting from efforts to defeat ISIS and stabilise the liberated areas," the White House said in a statement on Friday following the vote by Kurdish lawmakers.

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"Holding the referendum in disputed areas is particularly provocative and destabilising," the White House added, referring to areas that are controlled by Kurdish forces but claimed by Baghdad, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.

Baghdad recognises Kurdish autonomy in some areas of Iraq but the precise boundary of the Kurds' self-ruled region and the rest of the country is disputed.

The independence referendum was set in motion by KRG president Masoud Barzani, a Washington ally who has publicly kept open the option of postponing the poll.

On Friday, however, Mr Barzani dismissed alternatives offered by the US to avert the referendum.

"To date, we have not received an alternative that can replace the referendum, the alternative that we wanted was not offered," he said.

His remarks followed a meeting in Erbil on Thursday with the US envoy to the anti-ISIL campaign, Brett McGurk, who attempted to persuade the Kurdish leader to call off the referendum in exchange for a new diplomatic initiative to reach a deal between the Kurds and Baghdad.

Baghdad has repeatedly opposed the Kurdish referendum, calling it "unconstitutional". Mr Barzani says the referendum’s "legitimacy comes from the people of Kurdistan, not from the outside".

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