ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – President Masoud Barzani told US Secretary of Defense James Mattis the referendum will go ahead unless a stronger alternative is offered, but that Erbil will continue dialogue with Baghdad with the objective of becoming “two good neighbours,” according to a statement from the Kurdistan presidency.
Barzani hosted Mattis in Erbil along with a high-level American delegation from both the state and defense departments. During their meeting, Mattis reiterated US concern that the referendum might negatively affect the war against ISIS, according to the statement from the Kurdish side.
While Mattis expressed his understanding of the demands and rights of the people of Kurdistan, “He also noted the concerns and the position of his country with regard to the referendum and stated that the referendum was beyond what his country expected and the United States is of the view that this process might put obstacles in the war against ISIS and might create problems for the work of both sides in the war against ISIS,” read the presidency’s Kurdish-language statement.
The US Pentagon later also released a readout from meeting summarizing the Mattis-Barzani-talks that praised Erbil and Baghdad’s “strong” military cooperation for the liberation of Mosul, adding the offensive was “only possible” due to that cooperation.
“To maintain this cooperation, the secretary encouraged President Barzani to engage in a sustained dialogue with Prime Minister Abadi and keep the focus on maintaining the momentum against ISIS,” Mattis said, according to Pentagon Chief Spokesperson Dana W. White.
There were no direct mentions of “unity of Iraq” or the “wrong” timing of the Kurdistan Region’s planned independence referendum on September 25 — previous terms used by officials from the US State Department.
Mattis thanked Barzani “for his strong leadership of Peshmerga forces and being a supportive partner in operations to defeat ISIS.”
Barzani has said that the referendum is a right of the people of Kurdistan according to the principles of democracy and human rights.
He told the visiting US delegation that the referendum would “in no way create problems in the war against terrorism.”
Barzani said that the violations of the Iraqi constitution, lack of partnership with Baghdad and consensus pushed Kurdistan to call for the vote, adding that the right to hold the referendum was given in the preface of the constitution of Iraq.
The preface of the Iraqi constitution reads: The adherence to this constitution preserves for Iraq its free union, its people, its land and its sovereignty.
“President Barzani also stated that no forced union has ever worked. We chose a union of willingness conditioned to partnership, but because partnership did not work and to prevent deeper problems, we want to live as two good neighbours,” the statement said.
Any request for Kurdistan to postpone the referendum, should come with an alternative “and that alternative should be stronger than the tool of referendum,” the statement said.
Both Barzani and Mattis agreed that the talks with Baghdad should continue, with the latter saying they support and encourage such talks.
As for the war against ISIS, Barzani thanked the US for its help provided to the Kurdistan Region since 2014 and vowed Kurdistan would continue to fight terrorism now and in the future.
Secretary Mattis commended the role of the Peshmerga for their contribution in the ISIS war, adding that the US is honoured to have helped to help the Kurdish force.
“The cooperation and coordination between the two sides is very important to secure victory and he expressed the willingness of his country to commit and continue [the war] against the common enemy, which is terrorism,” the statement quoted Mattis as saying.
The Kurdish presidency released a different statement in English language regarding the meeting between Barzani and the US delegation.
Mattis was accompanied by Ambassador Douglas Silliman, Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Brett McGurk, and a cadre of military officers.
The Kurdistan Region has planned a referendum on independence for September 25. The United States has called the timing of the referendum wrong, citing the ongoing fight against ISIS.
A series of talks between Erbil and Baghdad officially began last week when a delegation from Erbil visited the Iraqi capital to discuss the referendum. Discussions are expected to continue in Erbil with the ruling Shiite National Alliance in two weeks.
Baghdad has called the referendum unconstitutional and unilateral and said it will not recognize the result. The Kurdistan Region says Iraq pushed Erbil into calling for the referendum by violating at least 50 articles of the Iraqi constitution, including Article 140 that concerns disputed or Kurdistani areas claimed by both Erbil and Baghdad, and the budget-share which was cut in early 2014.
The American visit is the latest in a series of efforts by high level American officials who want to convince the Kurdish leadership to postpone the referendum.
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had a phone call with Barzani on August 10 in which he requested the vote be postponed. US commander of the Central Command General Joseph Votel made a similar request when he visited Erbil on August 18. Barzani turned them both down, saying the US has failed to provide a guarantee.
Barzani has been very clear that any guarantee should be announced by the US administration in Washington, not “an ambassador,” as he put it Monday.
Any alternative, he says, should be a better alternative to achieving the Kurdish right to self-determination than the current referendum.
Barzani also said Monday that they will not postpone the referendum in return for political or financial concessions from Baghdad, ruling out anything the central government could offer the Kurdistan Region. But, he said, the international community could offer such a guarantee.
“There is one possibility: If the United States, the European Union, the Security Council, or the United Nations come and give an official guarantee to the people of Kurdistan, it is possible to discuss that. But if tomorrow an ambassador in Baghdad – a statement from an ambassador is worth nothing, because I myself have experience with it,” Barzani said, addressing civil society organizations on Monday.
“There is no alternative for the referendum now,” Barzani said, adding that the vote will go ahead as scheduled.
He then said the guarantee should be a “great” one.
“If there is a great international guarantee, the political leadership of Kurdistan can then possibly tell the people that this is a more guaranteed [way]. But even that may be refused.”
Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani and a number of senior officials welcomed the secretary at Erbil International Airport.
Mattis then held a meeting with President Barzani, also attended by, among others, Talabani, acting Peshmerga minister Karim Sinjari, and Rozh Nuri Shaweys who headed the Kurdistan referendum delegation to Baghdad last week.
Mattis has been visiting capitals in the Middle East, previously Baghdad this morning and Amman on Monday. He is scheduled to go to Ankara tomorrow.
Updated with the US Pentagon statement at 9:10 a.m. on August 23