Iraqi Kurds plan independence referendum on 25 September

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Analysts say the referendum is likely to pass although not all political parties in Kurdistan have expressed their support

Iraq's Kurdistan region's President Massoud Barzani gestures during a joint news conference with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel in Erbil (Reuters)
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Thursday 8 June 2017 10:02 UTC
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Iraq's Kurdistan region plans to hold a referendum on independence on 25 September, an official said on Wednesday.

A tweet from Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani's assistant, Hemin Hawrami, said: "big news. Kurdistan Referendum for independence is on 25/9/2017."

The decision was taken during a meeting between Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani and other political leaders.

However, both the anti-corruption Gorran movement and Islamic Group, which combined have 30 seats out of the 111 seat KRG parliament, boycotted the meeting.

A senior Kurdish official, Hoshiyar Zebari, told Reuters in April that a referendum would be held this year to press the case for "the best deal" on self-determination once the Islamic State group is defeated in Iraq.

The exact areas which would be included in a future Kurdish state have been a subject of major controversy.

Another tweet from Hawrami appeared to include a number of disputed territories, including the highly volatile Kirkuk and Sinjar regions, in the referendum:

Sinjar has seen repeated clashes between forces loyal to the KRG and forces linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who oppose the KRG system of government. Kirkuk, which has major cultural significance for Kurds, has been hit by repeated controversies, including over the raising of the Kurdistan flag on government buildings.

Abdulla Hawaz, an analyst focused on the Kurdish region of Iraq, said that holding the referendum could be rife with difficulty.

"I think the referendum as agreed by Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the two ruling parties, will take place, but the challenge would be holding it in the disputed territories since, as local media has reported, the referendum may take place in the disputed territories like Kirkuk as well," he told Middle East Eye.

"Another challenge would be Gorran, their position on the referendum is still unclear. Not to mention that we still don't yet know Baghdad's reaction and the reaction of the regional powers."

He said, however, that he expected the majority of Iraqi Kurdistan would vote for independence, although that didn't necessarily mean it would become a reality.

"I think the majority will vote yes, but I'm not sure if that is the only measure for success," he explained. "I would rather consider it successful if the independence actually happened - either gradually or directly after the referendum."

The government in Baghdad has yet to issue a response to the announcement.

The move is also likely to infuriate Turkey - although the country is allied to the KRG, the prospect of full independence is likely concerning for the affect it could have on Turkey's restive Kurdish minority.

In April, Turkey's presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told members of the media that such a referendum would be "wrong."

"[Turkey] disapproves of bringing up such a matter, especially in times when its regional security risks are at their highest."

The KRG has been particularly hit in recent years by the rise of the Islamic State group. Since 2014, a loss of funds from the central government in Baghdad and the need to boost security and absorb more than a million refugees has led to increasing instability and growing authoritarianism from the KDP.