Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish Regional Government, addressing the region’s parliament on Thursday, asked lawmakers to form a committee to prepare a referendum that would ask voters whether the Kurdish region should declare its statehood.
The speech came as Kurdish diplomats in Washington sought to lay the groundwork for a partition vote.
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The move, though expected, adds to growing woes in Baghdad, where Iraq’s army is rushing to recover its forces to fend off an Islamist insurgency led by the Sunni militant group that calls itself the Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS.
Initial assessments by U.S. military teams in Iraq have found that the country’s military can defend Baghdad but wouldn’t be able to uproot Islamic State militants, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday.
Politicians in Iraq’s central government worry that a Kurdish partition would prompt other regions to declare independence, particularly the Sunni-majority west that is now under the control of Islamic State militants.
A move toward Kurdish independence would also challenge Obama administration policy, which seeks to maintain a united Iraq. U.S. officials worry that Kurdish independence could fuel secessionist bids by Kurdish territories in other parts of the Middle East, particularly Turkey and Syria.
“I think we’ve been very consistent and clear about our view that a stronger Iraq is a united Iraq; a united Iraq is a stronger Iraq,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said on Wednesday.
Aides to Mr. Barzani have met senior State Department, White House and congressional staff in the U.S. over the last two days, describing what they say is the new reality in Iraq following the fall of numerous territories to Islamic State militants.
“If we can’t live together, we will go for divorce,” said Fuad Hussein, Mr. Barzani’s chief of staff, who met Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday. “It is now about a new reality.”
Mr. Barzani’s aides said the Kurdish Regional Government was engaging with Baghdad to form a new Iraqi government with the aim of removing Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki, but that a Kurdish vote could lead to outright independence from Baghdad.
Several nations, including the U.S., Iran and Russia have already moved to aid Iraq. The U.S. military has sent more than 700 people in recent weeks to protect Americans working in the country and to determine how the Pentagon can help in the fight against Islamic State militants.
Mr. Barzani addressed parliament for more than a hour on Thursday morning, telling the Kurdish parliament that it was time for Kurds to determine their future.
The Kurdish president told the parliamentarians the Iraqi constitution gives the Kurds the right to withdraw from the state because “other groups” have violated the Iraqi constitution on multiple occasions, said Firsat Sofi, a Kurdish member of parliament from Erbil, after the closed-door parliamentary session in the Kurdish capital.
“Kurds cannot wait anymore,” Mr. Sofi said.
Mr. Barzani said, according to Mr. Sofi, that the Kurds would maintain control of Kirkuk, which came under Kurdish control days after the fall of nearby Mosul to Islamic State fighters.
The Kurdish leader told the lawmakers that the international community’s support for the Kurds continues to increase, which Mr. Barzani said he made note of during recent trips abroad, citing Turkey and France as especially supportive of the possibility of a new Kurdish state.
The Kurdish parliament will remain in session to hammer out legislation for an independence referendum and to design an election commission, Mr. Sofi said. There is no timeline yet for an independence vote. The first step in the process will be a referendum in disputed territories, including Kirkuk, to determine if residents want to be of Kurdistan ahead of the independence vote.
“For now, our priority is to have a referendum in the disputed territories to decide their future,” said Rabun Marof, a member of parliament from Kirkuk.
Kurds won’t accept a return of the Iraqi army to Kirkuk, as threatened by Mr. Maliki on Wednesday, Mr. Marof said. He said the Kurdish parliament has decided to keep the Kurdish army, or Peshmerga, in Kirkuk, and he warned of an armed confrontation if the Iraqi Army tries to come back to the city.
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The State Department is using utterly wrong but politically correct statements such as “a united Iraq is a stronger Iraq.”
I expect that they really believe it or have been brainwashed…sadly (as they continue to weaken the West by importing “diversity” and then trying to say it makes us “stronger.” Don’t these people read history?)
Kirkuk was originally Kurdish but it was part of Saddam’s Arabization plan. So there is plenty of diversity there (including Turkmen). Yet in the current state of chaos, even the “diverse” elements may be prepared to accept Kurdish rule…for now.