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Iraq Kurds offer to freeze independence vote
By Abdel Hamid Zebari
Arbil, Iraq (AFP) Oct 25, 2017

Weeks of tension between Iraq and its Kurds
Tensions have soared between Iraq and its northern autonomous Kurdish region since Kurdish voters overwhelmingly backed independence in a non-binding referendum a month ago.

Here are the key developments:

- Millions vote -

Despite weeks of threats and warnings, the vote goes ahead on September 25 with more than 12,000 polling stations opening for 5.3 million registered voters.

It is held in the three provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan -- Arbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk -- as well as in disputed border areas such as the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.

Baghdad says the vote is "illegal" and the United States warns it will increase instability.

Neighbouring Turkey, concerned the vote could stoke separatist aspirations among its own Kurdish minority, warns the Iraqi Kurds they will face sanctions.

Iran, which has similar fears, has already announced it is stopping all flights to and from Iraqi Kurdistan.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi on September 26 gives authorities in Kurdistan 72 hours to hand the central government control of airports, warning he will otherwise ban international flights to and from the region.

- A massive 'yes' -

The official results released on September 27 show that more than 92 percent of voters back statehood. Turnout is over 72 percent.

Iraqi Kurd leader Massud Barzani says there will be no immediate declaration of independence but calls for negotiations.

But Abadi demands the vote is annulled. "We will never hold talks based on the results of the referendum," he says. "We will impose Iraqi law in the entire region of Kurdistan."

- Flights cut -

Baghdad cuts the Kurdish region's direct air links with the outside world indefinitely on September 29. Foreigners have already started leaving while they can.

The United States says that it does not recognise the referendum and its result which "lacks legitimacy".

On October 2, Iranian and Iraqi forces conduct joint military exercises near the border with the Kurdistan region.

Iran embargoes trade in fuel products with Iraqi Kurdistan.

An Iraqi court on October 11 orders the arrest of the chairman and two other members of the commission that organised the independence referendum.

- Soldiers deployed -

Kurdish peshmerga forces on October 12 block roads from Iraqi Kurdistan to Iraq's second city Mosul in response to an increase in deployments and movements of Iraqi forces near the front line.

Abadi denies an attack is imminent, vowing to "preserve the unity of our country".

On October 13, the Iraqi army launches an operation to take Kurdish-held positions around the provincial capital of Kirkuk, which has a Kurdish majority and took part in the contested referendum.

A senior Kurdish official says thousands of heavily armed fighters have been deployed to resist the offensive "at any cost". He calls for international intervention.

October 15: The Kurds ignore a looming deadline set by Baghdad for their forces to surrender positions they took during the fightback against jihadists.

The following day, Iraqi forces take control of the city of Kirkuk as well as key military sites and an oil field.

The capture of more key oil fields in the disputed province on October 17 dashes Kurdish hopes of creating a viable independent state. Abadi says the referendum is "a thing of the past.

- Conciliatory signals -

October 18: Iraqi Kurdistan postpones presidential and legislative elections scheduled for November 1.

The Iraqi Kurdish regional government says on October 19 that it is open to talks with Baghdad. The next day, Iraqi forces retake control of the last sector of Kirkuk province.

October 22: Iraqi Kurdistan's main opposition party calls for Barzani to resign.

October 25: Iraqi Kurdish leaders offer to freeze the outcome of the independence vote.

Iraqi Kurdish leaders offered Wednesday to freeze the outcome of last month's vote for independence, taking a step back in a major crisis after Baghdad delivered a body blow by seizing swathes of disputed territory.

The proposal came as world powers scrambled to avert any further escalation of the conflict between the key allies in the fight against the Islamic State group that has seen more than 30 combatants killed.

Iraq's Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi did not respond to the proposal during a visit to Ankara but once again slammed the Kurdish authorities for pushing on with the referendum "unilaterally and without any consideration for the rest of Iraq".

Iraq's Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation) force, whose mainly Iran-trained Shiite paramilitaries played a major role in the operation against the Kurds, said a freeze did not go far enough and demanded the outright annulment of the independence referendum.

Washington, Moscow and the United Nations have all pressed Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani to open talks with Baghdad on a way out of the crisis sparked by the fateful September 25 vote that he called.

The Kurdistan Regional Government, led by Barzani, said it would propose to the federal government "the freezing of the results of the referendum... and the start of an open dialogue" on the basis of the constitution.

It also called for "an immediate ceasefire and cessation of military operations in Kurdistan".

Since early last week, Iraqi federal troops and allied militia have retaken virtually all of the territory held by the Kurds outside their longstanding three-province autonomous region in the north.

There were clashes on Tuesday between government and Kurdish forces close to the frontier with Turkey as Baghdad made a push to reclaim control of key border crossings around the region.

- Vote must be annulled -

The Hashed al-Shaabi, which has taken a hard line in the dispute with the Kurds, demanded that they annul the independence vote as a precondition for any dialogue.

"The Kurdish proposal is worthless because freezing the referendum means recognising it and the position of the Iraqi government is clear -- the referendum must be annulled," Hashed spokesman Ahmed al-Assadi told AFP.

The independence referendum deeply divided Iraqi Kurdish leaders and many commanders ordered their forces to pull back without resisting.

The loss of so much territory, including the major city of Kirkuk and lucrative oil fields, dealt a huge blow to Kurdish dreams of economic self-sufficiency and eventual independence.

"Today nobody is with us except for God," lamented Mohammed Ali, 59, a trader in the Kurdish capital Arbil.

Barzani's longtime political rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, had opposed the independence vote and backed a UN plan for negotiations on wider Kurdish autonomy.

The Iraqi constitution adopted during the US-led occupation of 2003-11 provides for plebiscites in the disputed areas on their possibile incorporation in the autonomous Kurdish region.

Washington has made clear that while it will not take sides in the conflict between its Iraq allies, it does not regard Baghdad's reoccupation of the disputed areas as a fait accompli.

"The reassertion of federal authority over disputed areas in no way changes their status -- they remain disputed until their status is resolved in accordance with the Iraqi constitution," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Friday.

- UN bids for talks -

The United Nations said on Tuesday that it stands ready to broker talks.

UN envoy Jan Kubis "expressed confidence that despite the recent tensions, Iraq will be able to ride this crisis".

"Both sides publicly expressed their willingness to engage in dialogue and negotiations on the basis of the Constitution. The UN is ready to assist, if requested," he said.

Abadi, whose domestic prestige has been sharply boosted by the return of the disputed territories to federal control, has been on a tour of regional countries which share his hostility to Kurdish moves towards secession.

He also held talks in Baghdad on Monday with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

During his visit to Turkey, which is fiercely opposed to Kurdish independence, he was expected to push his demand for the federal government to retake control of border crossings.

As Abadi was looking to press his advantage against the Kurds, Iran -- another neighbour opposed to the vote -- reopened one of its three border crossings with Kurdistan.

Iran closed the crossings in response to the referendum and, like other governments around the world, last month halted flights to Iraqi Kurdish airports at the request of the Baghdad government.

Iraqi PM Abadi meets Erdogan for talks on Kurd vote
Ankara (AFP) Oct 25, 2017 - Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised on Wednesday to strengthen cooperation as ties between their two countries warm amid shared opposition to the Kurdish independence vote.

"We are part of a region suffering from conflict and instability, and it is time to cooperate to end these conflicts," Abadi said in a televised press conference after the two leaders met in Ankara.

Erdogan said they would explore ways to increase their cooperation "politically, militarily, economically and culturally."

During the meeting, both men were seen smiling -- a stark difference to when Erdogan told Abadi to "know your place" last October, after Baghdad criticised a Turkish troop presence in northern Iraq.

But since the non-binding Kurdish independence vote last month relations have improved, with Ankara -- which was particularly critical of Kirkuk being included in the vote -- backing Baghdad by threatening to close its border with Iraqi Kurdistan and apply economic sanctions.

"We have always said from the beginning that we support the territorial integrity of Iraq, and we will continue to say so," Erdogan said while repeating that the Kurdish vote was "unacceptable".

- 'Ready to give support' -

Erdogan said Turkey was ready to support reconstruction efforts in areas of Iraq that have been devastated by the fighting against the Islamic State extremist (IS) group and that he would push to develop economic ties with Baghdad.

"We are ready to provide any kind of support to allow the operation of the pipeline" to bring oil from Kirkuk to Turkey, Erdogan added.

The crude oil pipeline has been closed for several years.

The men also discussed the presence in northern Iraq of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency inside Turkey and is classified as a "terrorist group" by Ankara, the US and the EU.

"We are determined to continue the common struggle (against the PKK)," Erdogan said.

The Iraqi prime minister said that "no group, whether Iraqi or foreign, is allowed to carry weapons in Iraq if it is not authorised to do so".

Abadi also met with Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, who said they agreed to hold a joint cabinet meeting in the future.

Turkey would provide "necessary support" to the Iraqi central government to take control of the Habur crossing point between northern Iraq and Turkey, Yildirim added.

The crossing is controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government, but the Turkish premier did not give any more details.

Abadi's visit comes as Iraqi Kurdistan proposed Wednesday to "freeze" the results of its independence referendum and start "an open dialogue between the government of Kurdistan and the central government on the basis of the constitution".

Neither the Turkish leaders nor Abadi publically commented on this proposal.

Clashes as Iraq army takes last Kurd-held area of Kirkuk province
Altun Kupri, Iraq (AFP) Oct 20, 2017
Iraqi forces clashed with Kurdish fighters Friday as the central government said it had wrested back control of the last area of disputed Kirkuk province in the latest stage of a sweeping operation after a controversial independence vote. Iraq's Joint Operations Command said police, counter-terrorism units and allied militias seized the Altun Kupri region, extending the central government's ... read more

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