Kurdish leader says region will hold referendum after ISIS has been defeated

Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) will hold a referendum on Kurdish independence once Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) extremists have been defeated, KRG President Masoud Barzani said May 6 at the Atlantic Council.

Barzani couldn’t predict when an independent Kurdistan would be born, but added: “Certainly an independent Kurdistan is coming.”

The Kurdistan region has long sought independence from Iraq. Barzani said getting to that goal is a “continuing process.”

“It will not stop. It will not step back… We want it to be not through violence, not through killing. We want it to be through peace and understanding and dialogue,” Barzani said at the event, which was co-hosted by the Atlantic Council and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), and moderated by William B. Taylor, Jr., USIP’s Acting Executive Vice President.

Barzani said the ongoing war against ISIS has delayed the referendum on Kurdish independence.

“It will take place when the security situation is better and when the fight against ISIS is over,” said Barzani, speaking in Kurdish through an interpreter. “The people of Kurdistan have to be given the opportunity to exercise the right to self-determination—for them to tell us and to tell the rest of the world what do they want, what are their dreams and aspirations.”

The Obama administration does not support the idea of Kurdish independence.

At their May 5 meeting with Barzani, US President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden reaffirmed the administration’s “enduring commitment…to a united, federal, and democratic Iraq,” the White House said.

In his remarks at the Atlantic Council, Barzani said Iraq’s unity is “voluntary and not compulsory.”

Fighting ISIS on ‘Behalf of the Free World’

Peshmerga fighters have been in the forefront of the anti-ISIS fight, which has been a costly one for the Kurdish fighters, 1,200 of whom have been killed and 7,000 wounded.

“We believe we are at the frontlines fighting on behalf of the free world this brutal terrorist organization,” said Barzani, adding that the Peshmerga have destroyed the myth of ISIS being an invincible force.

The Peshmerga have won some important victories against ISIS. One of the most significant took place in February, when Peshmerga fighters liberated the key Syrian city of Kobani from the extremists who hope to carve out a caliphate across the Middle East.

Barzani said Peshmerga fighters have helped push ISIS out of around 20,000 square kilometers of territory and that the Peshmerga are willing to do more. For example, he said his forces are committed to helping liberate the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from the clutches of ISIS.

“So long as the terrorists of ISIS are in Mosul they will be a direct threat to Kurdistan,” he said.

Iraqi forces are planning an operation to liberate Mosul, which fell to ISIS in June 2014.

The KRG will be part of this operation and is working with the United States and its coalition partners, as well as the government in Baghdad, to finalize a plan to free Mosul, said Barzani.

Peshmerga Need Weapons

It was no surprise then that Barzani’s conversations at the White House were dominated by talk of degrading and ultimately destroying ISIS. The Pentagon has already given massive military support to the Peshmerga, for which Barzani said he was thankful. But he wants more.

Under US law, all arms transfers must be coordinated via the central Iraqi government in Baghdad. Yet some US lawmakers have proposed providing direct US military assistance to the Peshmerga.

The Obama administration has been reluctant to provide direct aid because the Kurds want independence and such support would trigger a backlash from the Iraqi government.

Sure enough, the government in Baghdad responded with outrage to a House bill, which proposed deeming the Peshmerga and Sunni militias as a “country” to circumvent the contraints of US law.

The United States does provide training to the Peshmerga and has coordinated the supply of weapons, including mortars, T-62 tank rounds, and assault rifles, through its coalition allies, particularly Germany. But the most significant support has been the cover provided by US-led coalition airstrikes.

Barzani, who often leads his forces on the frontlines, said the airstrikes have been effective, but that the Peshmerga need more and better weapons and ammunition in order to end the war “decisively and sooner.”

“The important point here is that the Peshmerga get these weapons,” he said. “How they come and in which way is not as important as the fact that the Peshmerga need these weapons to be in their hands.”

Baghdad-Erbil Ties Improve

In its effort to keep Iraq united, the White House is focused on improving ties between Baghdad and Erbil, capital of the KRG. Barzani said that relationship has gotten better since Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi took office last year. Al-Abadi replaced Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite whose sectarian policies exacerbated the divides between Iraq’s majority Shias and minority Sunnis setting the stage for the rise of ISIS.

Yet the Erbil-Baghdad relationship is not without problems, said Barzani.

Under an agreement reached with Baghdad in December 2014, the KRG will turn over 550,000 barrels of oil a day to the federal government, in exchange for 17 percent of Iraq’s national budget. Barzani said that as far as he knew, the KRG has so far not received any money.

“Our expectation is that the federal government in Baghdad will honor that agreement and provide the KRG with its fair share of revenues,” he said.

The Humanitarian Cost of War

The war on ISIS and Syria’s civil strife has placed a huge economic burden on the KRG, which is grappling with a humanitarian crisis at the center of which sit around 250,000 Syrian refugees.

Barzani has sought US assistance to cope with this crisis. “We cannot do it alone,” he said.

Ashish Kumar Sen is a staff writer at the Atlantic Council.

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