ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey warned Wednesday that plans by the leadership in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region to hold a referendum on independence could lead to civil war, in Ankara’s strongest warning yet against next month’s poll.
“In that country (Iraq), which has been through so many problems, a referendum on independence can make the situation even worse,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the state TRT Haber broadcaster.
“God forbid, it could even bring it to civil war,” he added.
Turkey has a substantial Kurdish minority which is sometimes estimated as making up around a quarter of its total population of just under 80 million.
Ankara has in recent years forged strong ties with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq but is extremely wary of any move towards independence by the region.
Turkish security forces in the southeast of the country are still fighting the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a deadly three-decade insurgency.
The PKK initially aimed to carve out an independent Kurdish state in the southeast although its declared ambitions are now more focused on autonomy and rights.
Ankara is also concerned about the presence of the Syrian Kurdish militia People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the border area, fearing an autonomous Kurdish region could also emerge in northern Syria.
‘Error and a threat’
Analysts have little doubt that the September 25 referendum would result in a “Yes” for an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq.
But the result would be non-binding and leave the approximately five million Kurds of northern Iraq some way away from actual independence.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in June strongly criticized the referendum plan, calling it “an error” and “a threat” to Iraq’s territorial integrity.
“The fundamental reason for our opposition to this referendum is the importance of preserving Iraq’s territorial and political integrity,” Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said in a radio interview Wednesday, denying any ill will towards the Kurds.
Widely seen as the world’s largest stateless people, most Kurds are spread between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. But it is only in Iraq where they have achieved a recognized autonomy.
Iraqi Kurdish oil is exported through Turkey, a key economic lifeline for the region.
Iran has also opposed the referendum plan, which is expected to be discussed this week in talks in Ankara between the Turkish leadership and Iran’s chief of staff General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri.