Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani, on the eve of a disputed independence referendum, said Sunday that his people’s “partnership with Baghdad has failed,” and urged them to go to the polls.
“We have reached the conclusion that independence will allow us not to repeat past tragedies,” he told a news conference in Erbil, capital of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan in northern Iraq.
“The partnership with Baghdad has failed and we will not return to it,” said Barzani, who has resisted pressure from the central government, neighboring states, and Washington to call off Monday’s referendum and to negotiate a new deal.
He urged “all Kurds to vote in peace from tomorrow.”
“The referendum is the first stage of Kurdistan giving its opinion. After that, a long process will begin,” the Kurdish leader said.
The Kurdish region’s president detailed the abuses Iraq’s Kurds have faced by Iraqi forces, including killings at the hands of former leader Saddam Hussein’s army that left more than 50,000 Kurds dead.
“Only through independence can we secure a future where we will not have the past atrocities,” he said.
“The referendum is not for defining borders or imposing a fait accompli. We want a dialogue with Baghdad to resolve the problems, and the dialogue can last one or two years,” Barzani said, in reference to disputed zones, such as oil-rich Kirkuk.
Barzani said he hoped Turkey, a strong opponent of the referendum, would not close its border with Iraqi Kurdistan, warning that both sides would emerge “losers.”
As for the risks of violence, he said: “We never think of armed conflict, but we are ready for everything. We have all the love for the Iraqi army and we are brothers.
“We expect reactions from one side or another, but we are convinced that whatever the risk and the price, it’s better than waiting for a dark outcome.”
Baghdad, the United States, and the United Nations have all voiced strong opposition to the vote set for Monday, warning that it could further destabilize the region as Iraqi and Kurdish forces continue to battle the Islamic State group.
Earlier Sunday, Iran closed its airspace to flights taking off from Iraq’s Kurdish region following a request from Baghdad. Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard also launched a military exercise Sunday in its northwestern Kurdish region, in a sign of Tehran’s concerns over the vote.
At the Erbil press conference, Barzani said he was unaware that Iran had closed its airspace, but that it was Iran’s “own decision.” The leader also confirmed that there had been shelling along Iran’s border with the Kurdish region.
The United States and other Western nations are backing a UN-supported “alternative” plan for immediate negotiations on future relations in exchange for dropping the referendum.
Washington argues that the vote will weaken Arab-Kurdish joint military operations that have helped to send Islamic State jihadists into retreat in both Iraq and war-torn Syria.
Israel is alone in openly supporting Kurdish independence.