FILE PHOTO: Iraq’s Kurdistan region’s President Massoud Barzani gestures during a joint news conference with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel (not pictured) in Erbil, Iraq April 20, 2017. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari/File Photo
By Maher Chmaytelli
ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region on Wednesday announced it would hold a referendum on independence, in a move the central government in Baghdad is likely to oppose strongly.
“I am pleased to announce that the date for the independence referendum has been set for Monday, Sept. 25, 2017,” Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani said on Twitter.
Barzani’s assistant Hemin Hawrami tweeted that voting would take place in the disputed region of Kirkuk and three other areas also claimed by the central government; Makhmour in the north, Sinjar in the northwest and Khanaqin in the east.
The president of Iraq’s ruling Shi’ite coalition told Reuters in April it would oppose a Kurdish referendum. Ammar al-Hakim especially warned the Kurds against any move to annex oil-rich Kirkuk.
The referendum date was set after a meeting of Kurdish political parties chaired by Barzani, who heads the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Hawrami said the question put to voters would be “do you want an independent Kurdistan?”
A senior Kurdish official, Hoshiyar Zebari, told Reuters in April the expected “yes” vote would strengthen the Kurds’ hand in talks on self-determination with Baghdad and would not mean automatically declaring independence.
The Kurds are playing a major role in the U.S.-backed campaign to defeat Islamic State (IS), the ultra-hardline Sunni Islamist group that overran about a third of Iraq three years ago and also controls parts of Syria.
IS fighters have been squeezed into a small area of Mosul, their de-facto capital in Iraq, as a push to retake the city closes in.
FEAR OF SEPARATISM
Iraq’s majority Shi’ite Arab community mainly live in the south while the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs inhabit different areas of the north. The centre around Baghdad is mixed.
The idea of Iraqi Kurdish independence has been historically opposed by Iraq and neighbouring Iran, Turkey and Syria, as they fear separatism spreading to their own Kurdish populations.
Kurdish officials will visiting Baghdad and neighbouring states to discuss the referendum plan, Erbil-based TV Rudaw said, adding that elections for the Kurdish regional parliament are planned for Nov. 6.
(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Andrew Roche)