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White House: Kurdish Independence Referendum 'Distracting' from ISIS Fight

Kurdish Peshmerga women prepare to fight ISIS. (Ton Koene/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration has asked the Kurdistan Regional Government to call off the independence referendum scheduled for Sept. 25, charging it would be “distracting” in the fight against ISIS for these key anti-ISIS fighters to seek a free state.

Voters will face one question, asked in Kurdish, Arabic, Turkmen, and Assyrian: “Do you want the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) and Kurdistani territories that are outside KRI to become an independent state?”

The results will be binding on President Masoud Barzani and the Kurdish government, which agreed to hold the referendum after a June 7 meeting. “It will mandate the leadership to negotiate the results with Baghdad to find a peaceful way of
implementing the will of the people of Kurdistan,” says an FAQ on the referendum from the Kurdish government. Overseas voting takes place Sept. 23.

“Since the adoption of the new Iraqi constitution in 2005, successive governments in Baghdad have violated the constitution, and it is clear to the people of Kurdistan that Baghdad will never implement key provisions of the constitution. Faithful
implementation of the constitution was the sole guarantee for Iraq’s unity and with its violation the chance to preserve it is gone,” the KRG added. “As a result, the people of Kurdistan will be given the chance to decide in a binding referendum and in a democratic process if they want independence or to remain as part of Iraq.”

Leaders promise that an independent Kurdistan would be “a federal, democratic, secular and pluralistic state where the rights of ethnic and religious minorities will be protected and upheld” and will be a homeland “for all the people who inhabit the country, including Kurds, Turkmen, Arabs, Assyrians, Syriacs, Chaldeans, Armenians, Yezidis, Kakayees, Faylees and other components.” Barzani said the national anthem and flag could be altered to reflect the diverse ethnic groups.

In a statement this evening, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the U.S. “does not support” the planned referendum.

“The United States has repeatedly emphasized to the leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government that the referendum is distracting from efforts to defeat ISIS and stabilize the liberated areas,” Sanders said. “Holding the referendum in disputed areas is particularly provocative and destabilizing.”

“We therefore call on the Kurdistan Regional Government to call off the referendum and enter into serious and sustained dialogue with Baghdad, which the United States has repeatedly indicated it is prepared to facilitate.”

Turkey is furious about the referendum, with loyalists to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan even whipping up anti-Semitic fake news stories claiming that the Kurds have a deal with Israel to flood Kurdistan with Jews.

Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS, told reporters in Irbil on Thursday that he told Barzani the referendum is “ill-timed and ill-advised.”

“We had a very, very positive and constructive discussion about a potential alternative path to the referendum,” McGurk said, not elaborating on the alternative details. “And this was a discussion, again, the United States, the United Nations, the UK, representing all of the partners here of the Kurdistan Region, so many partners of Iraq to talk about a potential alternative path.”

Despite the international opposition and McGurk’s effort, the Kurdish parliament voted today to move ahead with the referendum, prompting the White House statement.