France warns against Kurdish independence vote

Foreign minister echoes widespread international concern that referendum could undermine fight against Islamic State

French Minister for Foreign and European Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian in the Turkish capital Ankara, on September 14, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTAN)
French Minister for Foreign and European Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian in the Turkish capital Ankara, on September 14, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / ADEM ALTAN)

UNITED NATIONS — France’s top diplomat on Monday urged Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region to cancel next week’s planned independence vote, warning that now is not the time to go it alone.

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves le Drian, speaking on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, echoed widespread international concern about the referendum.

The Kurdish region has been de facto self-governing since before the fall of Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi dictatorship, and has strained ties with the Baghdad government.

Iraqi Kurds fly Kurdish flags during an event to urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on September 16, 2017. (AFP PHOTO/SAFIN HAMED)

Western capitals have been grateful for the Kurds’ support in the battle against jihadist extremism, and foreign investors are eyeing their oil and gas fields.

But diplomats fear a vote to break away from Iraq proper would undermine Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s central government and the fight against the Islamic State group.

“There are important clauses on autonomy in the Iraqi constitution,” Le Drian said.

“They should be respected, accepted and protected in dialogue between Baghdad and Kurdistan,” he said. “We think any other initiative would be untimely.”

Le Drian was speaking shortly after Iraq’s Supreme Court issued a ruling demanding the suspension of the vote that Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani has called for Monday.

“In Iraq, we’re preparing for life after Daesh,” he said, using the French government’s preferred acronym for the jihadist Islamic State group.

This post-IS Iraq, he argued, should be based on Iraq’s federal constitution and respect all the communities that make up the country’s “territorial integrity.”

Barzani has repeatedly said he will not cancel the non-binding referendum, which has drawn thousands of his supporters to vast nationalist rallies in stadiums.

But such a move could upset Turkey and Iran — which have their own restless Kurdish populations — and strain ties with the Kurds’ Western sympathizers.

Even Washington, long a strong backer of the Kurdish region as the most stable and pro-Western part of Iraq, has urged Barzani not to rush for independence.

Only Israel supports Kurdish independence, although Russia’s state-run energy firm Rosneft said Monday it hopes to invest in the region’s pipeline network.

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