Kurdish President Masoud Barzani speaks during a press conference on September 24, 2017 in Erbil, on the eve of a vote on independence referendum. Barzani said that his people's partnership with Baghdad has failed and urged them to go to the polls. Photo: AFP/Safin Hamed
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – There is nothing Baghdad can offer to bring Kurdistan back to the “failed partnership” with Iraq, said Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani, qualifying that Erbil is willing to continue negotiations, but once the people choose independence, there is nothing that can cancel that vote.
Barzani held a lengthy press conference in Erbil on Sunday afternoon, responding to questions from local, regional, and international media in the capital to cover the historic vote.
At the same time, in Baghdad, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi addressed the Iraqi and Kurdistan nations in a televised speech. He said his government will do whatever it takes to protect “every inch” of Iraqi territory, including Kurdistan.
Barzani said that he is expecting a large majority ‘yes’ vote for independence and that decision will instruct Kurdistan’s leaders in their negotiations with Baghdad after the referendum. He predicted the negotiations may take up to two years, though that time frame could be extended if the talks are friendly.
Barzani ruled out any possible incentives to keep Erbil within a united Iraq.
“When the referendum is held and the people made their decision, what alternative and decision can disregard the decision of those people?” Barzani asked rhetorically.
“No, there is no alternative. The only exception is if they make the road shorter, they come two days from now and say that ‘you don't need two years. Let’s reach an agreement within two months, and become good neighbours.’ This will be much better. But there is nothing they can offer to bring us back to failed partnership,” he continued.
Returning to Iraq would mean Kurds have not learned anything from past experiences.
“If we don’t learn from the past, may a curse be upon us,” Barzani said. He had opened the press conference recounting genocide and persecution generations of Kurds had suffered at Iraqi hands. He said that only independence can prevent past tragedies from happening again.
The people of Kurdistan are heading to the polls while regional and international pressure is at its highest, something Barzani said will decrease after the vote.
Less than two hours before the press conference, Iran announced the closure of their airspace, cancelling all flights to and from Kurdistan at the request of the Iraqi government because Erbil was persisting with the vote.
Turkey has also threatened to take measures against the historical process. Ankara called the referendum a threat to its national security.
Barzani reminded the people that Kurdistan’s neighbours and the international community have always eventually accepted changes, as they did when the Kurdistan Region announced a federal government or held its first election following the first Gulf War.
“It was even worse when federalism was announced... they all deal with de facto. If you exist, have will, your own territory, have a nation and have force, they all will respect you,” Barzani said.
He described the regional and world reactions to the vote as interim and Kurdistan will “assess” the official stances of each country after the vote.
Negotiations between Erbil and Baghdad after the vote will have only one objective – for the two to be neighbours.
“We are neighbours with Iraq from this moment on,” Barzani said.
Asked about statements made by Abadi Sunday evening, Barzani said he does not want to hurt the Iraqi prime minister with his response and called his relationship with Abadi as friendly.
Abadi said the Kurdistan vote wants to take Iraq back to the “era of darkness, authoritarianism, and dictatorship.”
He said Kurdish officials are corrupt and do not serve the people, despite large oil exports. He claimed that Erbil exports 900,000 barrels of oil per day (bpd). Kurdistan’s Ministry of Natural Resources refuted Abadi’s figures, saying Erbil exports under 600,000 bpd.