AMMAN, Jordan – The outcome of a long-anticipated independence referendum is clear, said Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, but the question remains whether or not the Kurdistan Region can act on it while Iran, Turkey, and Syria are all opposed to the separation of Kurds from Baghdad.
Abadi said that he does not support separation of the country and called for a united Iraq where Kurdish citizens are treated on the same level as other Iraqi citizens.
“With regard to independence, I see it as an aspiration and a wish; it is the right of every human being to aspire, and wish, and have a desire for it,” Abadi told Rudaw in an exclusive interview on Wednesday on the sidelines of the Arab League summit in Amman.
“But what can be achieved on the ground is about interests. The interests should be taken into consideration. Do you achieve your interests with this independence? Or you will achieve your interests with a united Iraq where all of its people live in one country? I imagine that it is better for Kurds and Iraqis to live together.”
Asked what Kurdish President Barzani had discussed with him about independence, Abadi refused to comment, saying that it is a private matter between both leaders. But, he said, “separation is not in the interest of the Kurdish nation,” noting that it would be damaging for both Baghdad and Erbil.
“I am not with the separation of Kurdistan Region from Iraq, despite my belief in the rights of the nations for self-determination. But we are in the same country and in the same boat, that is why it is necessary for both of us to live together and help each other.”
Abadi expressed his doubts that even if the Kurdish people voted in favour of leaving Iraq, an outcome the prime minister said is clearly expected, the question arises then whether the Kurdistan Region will be able to take steps in this direction. He noted a hostile regional environment for such a move.
“Will it be implemented or not? If the [result] of the referendum turned out to be yes, will they implement it? The Kurdish leaders all of them say that now is not the time for separation, now is not the appropriate time.”
He said that each of Iran, Turkey, and Syria, who have significant Kurdish populations in their countries, are opposed to Erbil in its quest for independence.
“It is not a secret,” Abadi said when asked whether any of these countries has told him in private of their opposition to Kurdish independence. “The official stance of Turkey is that they are against the separation of the Kurdistan Region. The official stance from Iran is that they are against the separation of the Kurdistan Region. The former Syria was in the same way against the separation, Syria both as a government and regime. I imagine that generally the Arab situation does not want it, either.”
“You live in a region that might not be suitable for this separation,” he warned. “Separation comes as a natural outcome for a nation who lives in a particular condition and is not reconciled with its current condition. But I imagine that the course of events is just the opposite. The Kurds as a nation are living in a more integrated way with Iraq, compared to other nations and other parties.”
He noted that relations between Baghdad and Erbil are “better” than before, adding that there are outstanding problems that have “accumulated” from the time of the Baathist regime and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq between both sides that remained unresolved for the lack of “a real will.”
Abadi said that he called on Kurdish leaders not to put Erbil and Baghdad in “a difficult situation” as he proposed both sides invest in the newly founded “trust” between Erbil and Baghdad following their military cooperation in the war against ISIS, in particular in Mosul where Iraqi and Kurdish security forces are jointly fighting a common enemy.
He also said that Kurdish politicians in private admitted that the Kurdish region is not in a condition to declare independence.
“I imagine that many of the Kurdish politicians, who dare not to say it in the open, but during their talks with me, they think and say that it is a fact that the interest of Kurds requires staying within Iraq But on one condition. And here I also repeat this condition myself that Kurds should be treated as any other Iraqi citizen is treated. It is not acceptable to discriminate. All citizens should be treated on the same level and that is as first class citizens.”
Abadi’s comments were made just one day before President Barzani informed the Secretary General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres, who is currently in Erbil on an official visit, that Erbil will hold an independence referendum “at the earliest time.”
“About the future of Kurdistan Region President Barzani emphasized that in the near future, a referendum will be held so that the world will be aware of the wish and the decision of the people of Kurdistan regarding its future,” read a statement from the Kurdish presidency issued Thursday evening after a meeting between Barzani and Guterres.
The number one outstanding issue between Baghdad and Erbil, in Abadi’s opinion, is the oil revenues, noting that the central government, according to the constitution, should control the oil issue.
The second issue of concern is the disputed areas. Abadi repeated a call for joint cooperation to resolve the issue and said he preferred to use term “agreed areas.”
Abadi made similar comments at the Sulaimani Forum earlier this month. “But now, we did not go back. We made progress forward with more unity. The Peshmerga are fighting together with us. Nobody in their right mind would have imagined that,” Abadi said at the time. “And today, we are trying, instead of the disputed areas – a negative term – we will turn it into the agreed areas so that we rebuild and rule these areas together, God willing.”
Abadi said that unity imposed on Iraq from outside the country will not work, adding that the current unity in Iraq is “unity by the will of its people.”
The disputed areas are regions described by Article 140 of Iraq’s constitution where both Erbil and Baghdad claim control. In the fight to oust ISIS from Iraq, Kurds have brought the majority of these disputed areas under their control. Kurdish authorities say they have extended their territories by as much as 40 percent since 2014.