Kurds 're-energize' independence referendum plan for post-jihadist Iraq

Thu Apr 6, 2017 6:31am EDT
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By Maher Chmaytelli

ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraq's Kurds plan to hold a referendum on independence this year to press their case for "the best deal" on self-determination once Islamic State is defeated, a senior Kurdish official said.

The Kurds already run their own autonomous region in northern Iraq and the official, Hoshiyar Zebari, indicated the expected 'yes' outcome in a vote wouldn't mean automatically declaring independence.

But with Kurdish forces also controlling wider territory regained from Islamic State, the referendum plan adds to questions about Iraq's unity after the militants have been ousted from Mosul.

The two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), agreed at a meeting on Sunday that a referendum should be held this year, Zebari, a senior member of the KDP leadership, told Reuters.

"The idea of a referendum has been re-energized," Zebari, a former Iraqi foreign and finance minister, said in an interview in Erbil on Wednesday evening, commenting on the meeting held with the PUK's leadership.

The Kurds played a major role in the U.S.-backed campaign to defeat Islamic State, the ultra-hardline Sunni Muslim group that overran about a third of Iraq nearly three years ago. The militants are now fighting off Iraqi forces in Mosul, their last major city stronghold in Iraq from where they declared a "caliphate" that also includes parts of Syria.

While the fall of Mosul would effectively end the "caliphate", it will not solve deep divisions over power, land and resources between Iraq's Shi'ite Arab majority, and the important Sunni Arab and Kurdish communities.

The two rival Kurdish groups issued a joint statement on Sunday declaring support for the plan of holding a referendum, leaving its exact timing to an agreement with other, smaller Kurdish groups.   Continued...

FILE PHOTO: Kurdish Peshmerga forces celebrate Newroz Day, a festival marking spring and the new year, in Kirkuk March 20, 2017. REUTERS/Ako Rasheed/File Photo