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Iraq's Kurdish Leader Says Referendum To Go Ahead, Despite International Opposition


Kurdish leader Masud Barzani speaks during a news conference in Irbil, Iraq, on September 24. "We will never go back to the failed partnership" with Baghdad, he said.

The leader of Iraq's Kurdish autonomous region says a controversial vote on independence will go ahead as planned on September 25, despite mounting pressure to call off the referendum.

The president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Masud Barzani, said on September 24 that the nonbinding vote will be the first step in a long process to negotiate independence.

"The partnership with Baghdad has failed and we will not return to it," Barzani told a press conference in Irbil, urging all Kurds to vote "in peace."

The Baghdad government and the international community have opposed the referendum -- including neighboring Turkey and Iran, which themselves have sizable Kurdish minorities.

In a televised address on September 24, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi called the vote “unconstitutional and against civil peace” and said Baghdad would take the "necessary measures" to protect the unity of the country.

The vote, Abadi said, ''could lead to ethnic divisions, exposing [the Iraqis] to disastrous dangers that only God knows.''

According to a statement published by Abadi's office, the Iraqi government asked the Kurdish region to hand over international border posts and its international airports.

It called on foreign countries to deal with the central government in regards to airports and borders and to stop oil trading with the region.

Meanwhile, Keivan Khosravi, the spokesman for Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said the country halted all flights between the Islamic republic and Iraq's Kurdish region at the request of the government in Baghdad, Iranian state media reported.

The office of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he and Iranian President Hassan Rohani, during a telephone conversation, voiced concern that the referendum will cause “chaos in the region.”

And Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said his country “will never, ever tolerate any status change or any new formations on its southern borders" and that the KRG “will be primarily responsible for the probable developments after this referendum.''

The United Nations, the United States, and other Western powers have expressed concerns that the referendum could distract from the war against the extremist group Islamic State (IS) should it lead to unrest in disputed areas.

Barzani said that he expects the strong reactions of the international community opposing Kurdish independence ''not to last forever'' after the vote is held.

He also dismissed concern that the referendum could destabilize the region and pledged to not seek to redraw the region's borders.

Iraqi Kurdish leaders have said the referendum will take place in the three provinces that officially make up the Kurdish autonomous region -- Dahuk, Irbil, and Sulaimaniya -- and some neighboring areas.

These areas include disputed cities such as oil-rich Kirkuk, Makhmour, Khanaqin, and Sinjar, over which Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have established control while fighting against IS militants who captured large parts of Iraq in 2014.

With reporting by AP, AFP, IRIB, and Reuters
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