Barzani: ‘We have international support for independence, and those who do not support us do not oppose us.' Photo: VOA
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region - In a private briefing to the Kurdish parliament, Kurdistan Region President Massoud Barzani delivered on his promise of a referendum for Kurdish independence.
“I ask for your assistance to set a date," Barzani said.
Having told the BBC earlier this week that it “is a question of months” before a referendum would take place, Barzani arrived at parliament to raise support for his plan.
“We have international support for independence, and those who do not support us do not oppose us,” he announced. “You have to pass a bill on a KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) election commission as soon as possible.”
He also made plain there are no plans to relinquish control of disputed areas outside Kurdistan’s official borders, where the KRG has moved in its forces over the past three weeks, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
“The Peshmerga forces will not pull out from Kirkuk and the disputed areas,” Barzani declared.
Many Kurdish MPs came dressed in traditional Kurdish clothing in anticipation of a historic announcement: The creation of an independent state has long been the dream of Kurds, who were first promised a referendum on statehood in 1920 before international powers rescinded the offer two years later.
Barzani’s speech was delivered in the wake of beleaguered Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s failed attempt to form a government in Baghdad. The Shiite premier has lost crucial support from domestic and international partners since the Islamic State (ISIS) and other militant groups wrested a third of the country from his government’s control.
The Iraqi Parliament opened on Tuesday, only to have Kurdish and Sunni lawmakers storm out after facing insults and threats from members of Maliki’s State of Law Coalition, some of whom were dressed in military fatigues. Quorum was lost and nothing was achieved in the session, which only served to illustrate how divided the country has grown.
Accused of alienating Iraq’s Sunni population and mismanaging the numerous national security posts he occupies, Maliki has remained staunchly defiant in the face of calls to step down. He points to a strong result in April’s elections as a mandate to return for a third term.
In a televised speech following the stormy parliamentary session in Baghdad, Maliki promised that the Iraqi army would return Kirkuk and other disputed territories currently protected by Kurdish Peshmerga forces, accusing the Kurds of taking advantage of the insurgency to advance their own interests.
“There is nothing in our constitution called self-determination," Maliki said. "No one has the right to take advantage of events… as happened with some actions of the Kurdistan Region."
Barzani presented a very different understanding of events.
"What we see today is the result of the failed policies of Maliki in Iraq. We warned them about this six months ago, but they did not listen," he said.
His appearance in the Kurdish Parliament comes as a high-ranking Kurdish delegation in Washington DC makes the case for self-determination to US Secretary of State John Kerry and other American officials.
Speaking at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Fuad Hussein, Barzani’s chief of staff, explained that independence could lead to a confederation with Iraq.
“When I am talking about the right of self-determination, the Kurds can have their own independent country,” he said. “But when we have a democratic government in Baghdad and they can have their territory (currently under the control of the militants), we can combine and have a confederation between two states,” he said.
Hussein emphasized that the current KRG policy is a “two path” approach. On the one hand, Kurds are working to establish a government in Baghdad. On the other, Kurds must ensure their political and economic security, considering they share a 1,000-kilometer border with the Islamic State, which has effectively cut them off from the rest of the country.
“We want to show our friends that we have done everything to help the political process in Iraq,” said Falah Mustafa Bakir, head of the KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations. Only if it doesn’t work out, he said, will the Kurds opt for independence.
Neither Bakir nor Hussein indicated that a referendum would lead to independence anytime soon.
“Having a referendum doesn’t mean we are going to implement the result directly,” Hussein clarified. “That depends on the situation and negotiations with other countries. But the Kurdish people have the right of self-determination and one day we will implement that right.”
Following the establishment of a no-fly zone in 1991, the KRG enjoyed de facto independence until the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in 2003. Granted strong federal rights under the 2005 Iraqi Constitution, Kurds have complained that they have been denied their constitutional privileges, including a referendum in the disputed areas and the right to negotiate independent oil exports.
Additional reporting by Raed Asad Ahmed