ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Negotiations with Baghdad will begin immediately after the independence referendum, said Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, expecting a ‘yes’ result. He noted that the timetable after the September 25 vote is “flexible but not open-ended.”
Barzani said in an interview with Reuters on Thursday that there is no turning back from the decision to hold the referendum in the fall, vowing to implement whatever the people of Kurdistan decide.
"Our main goal is to implement and achieve the decision of our people through peace and dialogue," Barzani said.
He said that the experience with the new Iraq, founded after the US-led invasion that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003, has failed to consider the Kurds a true partner in a federal state.
"For 14 years we have been waiting and we have been discussing this partnership but we have always been told it's not a good time and it's not acceptable timing so my question is, when is the right time?” Barzani asked.
Baghdad has said that it opposes the the referendum.
Turkey, an ally of the Kurdistan Region with strong ties with Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Iran, and Syria, who each have sizable Kurdish populations, are opposed to the referendum.
Barzani played down regional opposition to the historic vote.
Erbil has promised the vote would take place in the entire Kurdistan Region as well as the disputed areas as defined in the Iraqi constitution. They are otherwise called Kurdistani areas by Kurds and include the multi-ethnic, oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which came under de facto Peshmerga control in 2014 when the Iraqi army retreated in the face of ISIS advances.
Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution, which came into effect in 2005, called for a normalization process followed by a referendum in the disputed areas to decide whether they want to stay with Baghdad or Erbil. The central government has missed its 2007 deadline to carry out these processes.
Erbil says the independence referendum can now settle that issue when the people are asked: Do you vote for the state of Kurdistan: Yes or No?
"Whatever the people of Kirkuk decide within the referendum, that decision should be respected," said a relaxed Barzani.
Barzani, who has for long stated that he hopes the birth of an independent state for Kurdistan under his watch would be his “legacy,” said negotiations with Baghdad, neighbors, and international powers would start immediately after the vote in order to reach an amicable agreement.
At home, although all Kurdish parties support independence, including Barzani’s rivals the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Gorran or Change Movement, all but the KDP call for an act from the now-paralyzed Kurdish parliament before they give their blessing to the referendum.
The Kurdish parliament has not convened since October 2015 after disputes between KDP and Gorran.
Commenting on speculations that the referendum may spark violence, Barzani downplayed it, saying that the will of the people is far stronger than internal or external factors who may be working against the vote.
"The legitimacy of the people is bigger than the legitimacy of any of the political parties or any of the external interventions,” he said.
He also revealed perhaps for the first time that there may be some attempts to “foil” the referendum, saying that they will fight back.
"I don’t think anybody can stand against the big wave of the people of Kurdistan when they decide their destiny. Maybe there will be some attempts to foil (it)... We will try our best not to allow that to happen."
He said he was ready to allay security concerns of neighbouring countries with sizable Kurdish populations saying that postponing independence would actually lead to greater instability.
"We have proved that we are factors of stability," Barzani said. "So what we do through a referendum is prevent that upcoming instability. We want to cut any possibility of bloodshed in the future."
Reuters said that Barzani used the term "Kurdish state" and that this state would give full assurances to ethnic minorities including Christians, Yazidis, and Shabaks, indicating his Peshmerga forces had already lost hundreds of fighters to retake their areas from ISIS.
Kurdish leaders generally refer to a more inclusive Kurdistan state, rather than a Kurdish state, that represents all peoples from different national or religious backgrounds.
The Kurdistan president also touched on the Mosul offensive with the military offensive in the city expected to conclude very soon after a months’-long military operation that came about following what has been described as “historic” joint cooperation between the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Iraqi security forces, backed by the US-led Global Coalition against ISIS.
He reiterated his accusations against the Iraqi government that he accuses of failing to prepare a post-battle political, security, and governance plan.
"I warned if you are not going to have this political plan, the situation will reverse."
A high-level committee formed after a trilateral agreement between Erbil, Baghdad, and the coalition signed before the Mosul offensive and tasked with helping the Mosul local government has never convened, Barzani said.
"I have big concerns about the situation in Mosul and about post-liberation, because the end of Islamic State in Mosul doesn’t mean the end of Islamic State. Those factors, the environment that brought it into Mosul have not (changed),” Barzani said.
"I have a big concern about the future of the area. I hope I will be wrong."
Barzani told some members of Arab tribes of Nineveh and Makhmour in late June that he is “concerned” that what is to come after the defeat of ISIS in Mosul would be far more “catastrophic” and that the Kurdistan referendum will “prevent a new cycle of killing.”
“After the outcome of the referendum, we will enter serious talks with Baghdad and the political parties, so that we will reach a mutual understanding because the current situation is not sustainable, and would take us to a catastrophe,” Barzani told tribal leaders in Erbil on Wednesday.
“The catastrophe will be so great and to an extent that things you call a catastrophe now compared to what will come look trivial. I swear to God my main objective is to prevent a new cycle of killing,” Barzani continued.