Iraq could use force if Kurdish referendum leads to violence

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi speaks during the Iraq Energy Forum at Al-Rashid Hotel in the capital Baghdad on April 2, 2017. Leaders and the ministers of oil and electricity met to discuss Iraq's energy sector at the forum. / AFP PHOTO / SABAH ARAR

BAGHDAD — Iraq is prepared to intervene militarily if the Kurdish region’s planned independence referendum results in violence, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Saturday.

If the Iraqi population is “threatened by the use of force outside the law, then we will intervene militarily,” he said.

Iraq’s Kurdish region plans to hold the referendum on support for independence from Iraq on Sept. 25 in three governorates that make up their autonomous region, and in disputed areas controlled by Kurdish forces but which are claimed by Baghdad.

“If you challenge the constitution and if you challenge the borders of Iraq and the borders of the region, this is a public invitation to the countries in the region to violate Iraqi borders as well, which is a very dangerous escalation,” al-Abadi said.

The leaders of Iraq’s Kurdish region have said they hope the referendum will push Baghdad to come to the negotiating table and create a path for independence. However, al-Abadi said such negotiations would likely be complicated by the referendum vote.

“It will make it harder and more difficult,” he said, but added: “I will never close the door to negotiations. Negotiations are always possible.”

Iraq’s Kurds have come under increasing pressure to call off the vote from regional powers and the United States, a key ally, as well as Baghdad.

In a statement released late Friday night the White House called for the Kurdish region to call off the referendum “and enter into serious and sustained dialogue with Baghdad.”

“Holding the referendum in disputed areas is particularly provocative and destabilizing,” the statement read.

Tensions between Irbil and Baghdad have flared in the lead-up to the Sept. 25 vote.

Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, has repeatedly threatened violence if Iraqi military or Shiite militias attempt to move into disputed territories that are now under the control of Kurdish fighters known as Peshmerga, specifically the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

“It’s chaotic there,” Muhammad Mahdi al-Bayati, a senior leader of Iraq’s mostly Shiite fighters known as the popular mobilization forces, said earlier this week, describing Kirkuk in the lead up to the vote.

Al-Bayati’s forces — sanctioned by Baghdad, but many with close ties to Iran — are deployed around Kirkuk as well as other disputed territories in Iraq’s north.

“Everyone is under pressure,” he said, explaining that he feared a rogue group of fighters could trigger larger clashes. “Anything could be the spark that burns it all down.”

Al-Abadi said he is focused on legal responses to the Kurdish referendum on independence. Earlier this week Iraq’s parliament rejected the referendum in a vote boycotted by Kurdish lawmakers.

Iraq’s Kurds have long held a dream of statehood. Brutally oppressed under Saddam Hussein, whose military in the 1980s killed at least 50,000 of them, many with chemical weapons, Iraq’s Kurds established a regional government in 1992 after the U.S. enforced a no-fly zone across the north following the Gulf War.

After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam, the region secured constitutional recognition of its autonomy, but remained part of the Iraqi state.

When asked if he would ever accept an independent Kurdistan, Al-Abadi said: “It’s not up to me, this is a constitutional” matter.

“If (Iraq’s Kurds) want to go along that road, they should work toward amending the constitution,” al-Abadi said. “In that case we have to go all the way through parliament and a referendum to the whole Iraqi people.

“For them to call for only the Kurds to vote, I think this is a hostile move toward the whole of the Iraqi population,” he said.