BAGHDAD, Iraq – The Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has said that if Erbil insists on holding independence referendum on September 25, the Kurdistan Region will “lose” all it has achieved since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
While Abadi called the Kurdish vote “unconstitutional,” he called for “dialogue, dialogue, dialogue,” as he extended an open invitation to the Kurdish leadership to visit Baghdad in order to hold talks to resolving their disagreements.
Abadi’s remarks Tuesday came just after the Iraqi parliament decided in a majority vote to call the Kurdish vote a “threat” against the unity of Iraq while calling on PM Abadi’s cabinet to take “all measures” to stop it from happening. A Kurdish official speaking on behalf of the three main ruling parties in Kurdistan said they consider the vote as giving the green light to the Iraqi PM to resort to the military might against Erbil.
Reading from a prepared speech, the Iraqi premiere made sure to leave a door open for further talks as he outlined — though in less clear terms — some of the procedures his government may take to force the Kurdish leadership to abandon their bid for independence.
The people in the Kurdistan Region and the disputed or Kurdistani areas claimed by both Erbil and Baghdad will head to the polls less than two weeks. Erbil says that the partnership hoped since the invasion between it and Iraq have failed as it accuses the Iraqi government of having violated about one third of the Iraqi constitution including Article 140 that concerns the fate of the disputed areas such as oil-rich Kirkuk.
The Kurdish Peshmerga have gained control over the vast majority of the disputed areas after the Iraqi army abandoned their posts against the ISIS advance three years ago.
“Imposing de facto [rule] is not an acceptable thing, and will not last,” Abadi said while reading the view of the Iraqi Council of Ministers: “We do not allow dividing the country.”
He called on the Kurdish people residing in Iraq or outside the country to stand against the referendum “because it does not serve any of their interests,” Abadi said.
“The Kurdish citizens in Iraq made achievements during the period of coexistence after 2003 what they could not achieve in past centuries. And this is their right, because they are first-class citizens like the rest of Iraqis,” Abadi said, making reference to the Iraqi constitution that came in effect in 2005 which recognized the Kurdistan Region established in 1992 with its own parliament, armed forces, and government.
He said based on his “knowledge” of the unfolding situation in Iraq and the wider region, he knows for sure “that the procedures to hold the referendum would lose all that has been achieved,” by the people of the Iraqi Kurdistan. He added that he issues such warning because he cares about the “interests” of the Kurdish people.
He said the Iraqi Council of Ministers has been studying the issue of the Kurdish vote in September “for a long time.”
“The Council of Ministers reiterates the protection of the unity of Iraq and commitment to the constitution, and dialogue, dialogue and dialogue to solve and settle all outstanding issues between the federal government and the Regional government,” Abadi said, as he called on the Kurdish leadership to send a delegation to negotiate over their disagreements.
Abadi said the path of dialogue is the only option between the two sides to resolve their differences. He explained that the Iraqi and Kurdish security forces have already provided an example of cooperation and coordination in their fight against the ISIS group such in Mosul offensive. He called for such cooperation to expand to other areas.
US officials urged the premiere on Tuesday to keep the fight focused on ISIS.
"[Met] with PM Abadi last night, praised victories against ISIS and partnership with Peshmerga. All must remain focused on ISIS threat," the US Special Presidential Envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition wrote in a tweet on Wednesday morning. Douglas Silliman, the US Ambassador in Iraq, also attended the meeting.
Mala Bakhtiyar, a senior Kurdish official told reporters Tuesday that they condemn the decision by the Iraqi parliament that empowers Abadi, who is also the commander-in-chief of all armed forces, to take military measures against Erbil.
He said they call on Iraq to respect a US-backed agreement between the Iraqi and Kurdish governments that stipulates the Iraqi army would stay out of their dispute.
Bakhtiyar, like Abadi, also called for dialogue and he expected that a Kurdish delegation would visit Baghdad to resume a second round of talks with Iraqi officials. The first round of talks that took place last month did not result in an agreement.
Abadi said Iraq considers the referendum and the procedures to hold the vote as “unconstitutional” and in violation of the Iraqi laws, as well in violation of “the locals laws in place inside the Region itself.”
He pointed out the internal issue in the Kurdistan Region such as the issue of the suspended Kurdish parliament. He said a vote cannot take place amidst internal divisions among the Kurdish parties.
The Kurdish parliament is to reconvene following a two-year political stalemate because of tensions between the first two biggest parties in Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party and Gorran. The two held a trilateral meeting with their mutual ally the Patriotic Union of KurdistanTuesday, and they are expected to hold a second such meeting later today or tomorrow to finalize a deal that allows the reactivation of the Kurdish parliament. The first task of the parliament is to pass a law to call for the Kurdish referendum.
Abadi said that the Kurdish government has been controlling the oil wells in Kirkuk since the war broke out with ISIS in 2014, and Erbil has since exported the oil from the province in violation of the Iraqi laws and constitution “by force.”
Currently, Kirkuk’s oil is exported through the Kurdish pipeline to Turkey’s Ceyhan port. Under an agreement between Erbil and Baghdad made last year, half of the revenues of sales of Kirkuk’s oil go to the Kurdistan Region.
Kurdish President Masoud Barzani visited Kirkuk on Tuesday where he insisted that the diverse province will take part in the referendum at its stated time, and that they will not allow anyone to prevent the people from exercising their right to self-determination.
Abadi, like Barzani, called on the people to avoid giving attention to those who make use of racial and sectarian language.
The Iraqi PM said that they hope the two sides will find a way to find a lasting solution instead of confrontation “where each side loses”
President Barzani said Tuesday that the new Iraq that was established following the Iraq war in 2003 had provided a “golden opportunity” to found a country that they all hoped for. But he said to his disappointment the things did no go as they wished.
He recounted an example after the invasion where he said he truly felt that he belongs to the Iraqi nation.
“I remember when the [Iraqi] Governing Council was formed, and the provisional law was passed, when it was my turn to talk, I said with conviction: ‘This is the first time in my life that I feel I belong to that nation, and I feel Baghdad is my capital.’ But in fact the subsequent stages did not allow that feeling to last,” Barzani said about his time when he was a member of the then US-installed Iraqi Governing Council.
He said the Kurds then felt that they are “not welcomed” in Iraq.
“We do not face a democratic, federal state” in Iraq, Barzani noted, “but we face a religious and sectarian state that is against of what we had agreed to.”