Iraq’s parliament on Tuesday voted against plans by Kurdish leaders to hold an independence referendum just two weeks before it was to be held, echoing regional criticism of the poll.
The non-binding referendum planned for September 25 has faced strong opposition from neighbouring Iran and Turkey, which fear it will stoke separatist aspirations among their own sizeable Kurdish minorities.
Critics of the vote, including the United States and the European Union and even members of the 5.5 million-strong Iraqi Kurdish population, say it could distract from the fight against jihadists.
Iraqi and Kurdish peshmerga forces have played a key role in battling the Islamic State group (IS) which captured swathes of the country in 2014, and the fight has borne fruit in recent months.
The vote — which prompted a walkout by Kurdish lawmakers — came as the Kurdish parliament said it would meet on Thursday, for the first time in two years, to vote on the referendum.
Iraqi parliament speaker Salim al-Juburi, a Sunni Arab, said the vote required the Baghdad government to “take all steps to protect the unity of Iraq and open a serious dialogue” with Iraqi Kurdish leaders.
Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani, who is organising the referendum, said from the disputed city of Kirkuk that the poll would be held because “all other bids” to secure Kurdish rights “have failed”.
The referendum could lead to the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan, an oil-rich region in the country’s rugged, mountainous north which gained de facto autonomy in 1991.
– ‘Unconstitutional’ –
However, the region, whose people were brutally repressed under former dictator Saddam Hussein, won autonomy in 2005 under a constitution which set up a federal republic in Iraq.
Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and other top officials have said repeatedly the referendum would violate Iraq’s constitution.
On Tuesday Abadi reiterated his position, adding “imposing a fait accompli will not work. We will not allow the partition of Iraq”.
Juburi argued against the referendum, saying the federal parliament “strives for the unity of Iraq and rejects its division under any reason”.
The parliament, he said, “has set what can be the subject of a referendum, and Kurdistan is not one of those cases”.
On February 3, 2016, Barzani said the “time has come” for the country’s Kurds to hold a referendum on statehood.
“This referendum would not necessarily lead to (an) immediate declaration of statehood, but rather to know the will and opinion of the people of Kurdistan about their future,” he said at the time.
Kurdish leaders have said a “yes” vote would pave the way for the start of “serious negotiations” with the Baghdad government.
– IS and political fault lines –
Iraqi Kurdistan is made up of three provinces that are run by an autonomous regional government and protected by their own security services.
The concept of an independent state is seen as a dream come true for a broad spectrum of Iraqi Kurds, but some in the community fear the referendum could undermine plans to pursue the battle against IS.
After driving IS from second city Mosul and Tal Afar, Iraqi forces are readying to retake Hawija, one of the jihadists’ last urban bastions in the country.
The town lies on a major fault line of Arab-Kurdish tensions because it is located in oil-rich Kirkuk — a province contested by the Baghdad government and the autonomous Kurdish region and home to diverse communities, including Arabs and Turkmen.
Authorities in Kirkuk have, against the advice of the central government in Baghdad, decided they will take part in the referendum, in what could further stoke tensions.
In June, the United States voiced its support for the “aspirations” of the Kurdish people but said holding a referendum now was not the priority, citing instead the fight against IS and rebuilding the country.
Iran and Turkey, which have dismissed the referendum as “wrong” and a “mistake”, offered to mediate between Arbil, the capital of Kurdistan, and Baghdad.
Political scientist Abdelhakim Khasro said there are no constitutional or legal “obstacles” to stop the Kurds from holding a referendum.
“The only obstacle serves the interest of regional countries and aims at weakening Kurdistan,” he said.