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Iraqi Kurds' referendum plan a negotiating tactic, says official

Nazem Dabbagh said that the referendum was called to demand 'respect' from Baghdad
Iraqi Kurdish protesters wave flags of their autonomous Kurdistan region during a demonstration (AFP)

A top Tehran-based official from Iraq's Kurdish government has said its planned independence referendum is really a negotiating tactic to pressure Baghdad into meeting promises on energy and power-sharing.

Nazem Dabbagh, who represents the Kurdistan Regional Government in Tehran, also said he feared that Iraqi forces would attack Kurdish positions now that the fight to retake Mosul from the Islamic State (IS) group was over.

But he was adamant that the Iraqi Kurds would prefer to remain part of Iraq, despite calling a referendum on independence for 25 September. "We are doing this [holding the referendum] to resolve our problems in Iraq.

"For now, we do not have the intention of separating," Dabbagh said in an interview with AFP at his office in the Iranian capital.

"We don't feel that Iraq accepts us. For this reason, we seek to use appropriate opportunities - through diplomacy, parliament and the people - in order to demand our rights. If they [Iraq] don't want to solve our problems, our people are ready to sacrifice."

Dabbagh accused Baghdad of failing to meet several key promises outlined in the Iraqi constitution of 2005, including resolving the status of Kirkuk, a city on the border between the Kurds' semi-autonomous region and the rest of Iraq.

He said Baghdad had also failed to ratify laws on oil revenues and funding for the Kurdish security forces, known as the Peshmerga, despite the latter's crucial role in pushing back IS.

"I believe that a Baathist mentality still exists among some Iraqi leaders," said Dabbagh, referring to the previous regime under Saddam Hussein.

"They don't accept others. They always resort to military force to resolve problems."

Asked if he worried the Iraqi army and Shia militias would attack Kurdish regions, Dabbagh said: "One hundred percent. That is my fear."

Iraq's five million Kurds are well aware of their precarious position, surrounded by countries that strongly oppose any push for independence that could encourage secession in their own Kurdish regions.

"We are an enclosed geographical area surrounded by Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. If they want to, these countries can strangle us. But those engaged in the struggle are not afraid of this," said Dabbagh.

Iran, which has around six million Kurds in its own country, has built close ties with those in Iraq but has opposed the brinkmanship of calling a referendum.

"Iran opposes these murmurs about holding a referendum in order to separate one part of Iraq," Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said during a visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi last month.

Iraq's ambassador in Tehran said on Saturday that independence for the Kurds was "impossible" and a violation of the constitution.

"If a Kurdish state is born, it will be still-born. I hope my brother Kurds will act with more wisdom and won't choose this dangerous path," Ambassador Rageh Saber Abboud al-Musawi told Iran's Mehr news agency.

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