Iraqi Kurds push ahead with referendum to pressure Baghdad

Kurds wave Kurdish flags and flash the victory sign as they gather to support next week's referendum in Iraq, at Martyrs Square in Downtown Beirut, Lebanon. (AP)
Updated 18 September 2017
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Iraqi Kurds push ahead with referendum to pressure Baghdad

IRBIL, IRAQ: Iraq’s Kurds are to vote on their independence in a September 25 referendum, but the poll is more of a tool to pressure Baghdad than a step toward real secession, observers say.
Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani announced the referendum in June and has pushed ahead with the vote despite strong opposition from regional powers, the Kurds’ international backers and the central government in Baghdad, which considers it unconstitutional.
In the months since, the streets of the regional capital Irbil have been festooned with red, white and green Kurdish flags and huge crowds have gathered at rallies to support the vote.
The result seems a foregone conclusion. The Kurds — more than 30 million people spread across Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria — have long sought a state of their own.
But with not just Baghdad, Turkey and Iran but also the United States and United Nations opposing the vote, there is little hope that dream will be quickly realized in Iraq.
Instead, observers say, Barzani is using the referendum as leverage in the Kurdish Regional Government’s longstanding disputes with federal authorities.
Barzani is hoping the referendum will deliver “wide-ranging benefits” on issues including oil exports, budget payments and control of ethnically divided areas, Karim Pakzad of the Paris-based Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (IRIS) told AFP.
He said the Kurdish leader wants to pressure Baghdad to resume payments to the cash-strapped KRG from the national budget, long blocked over the autonomous region’s unilateral oil sales.
Barzani is aiming to win “a greater political and economic role and recognition of the Kurds’ right to exploit and export oil from the north,” Pakzad added.
The other key bone of contention is control of areas with mixed Kurdish and Arab populations, notably the province of Kirkuk.
The KRG has already expanded the territory it effectively controls and its peshmerga forces have seized areas outside its borders from the jihadists of the Daesh group.
But some observers are warning that Barzani’s power play is a dangerous gamble, raising the threat of sectarian clashes.
The oil-rich province of Kirkuk in particular has become a tinderbox.
The province, home to numerous minorities, voted in August to take part in the referendum in defiance of Baghdad.
The government responded by sacking Kirkuk’s Kurdish governor, who has refused to leave his post. Rumours are rife that rival communities are stockpiling arms in anticipation of a conflict.
Hadi Al-Ameri, head of the powerful Iranian-backed Badr organization, has warned that the Kurdish referendum could lead to partition and civil war, vowing to defend the unity of Iraq.
Pressure for the vote to be put off has mounted, with Washington urging the KRG to resolve its differences with Baghdad without seeking to divide Iraq.
The United States argues that the vote will weaken Arab-Kurdish joint military operations which have helped to send IS into retreat in both Iraq and war-torn Syria.
The US and other Western nations are backing a UN-supported “alternative” plan for immediate negotiations on future relations in exchange for dropping the referendum.
Turkey, unsettled at the prospect that Irbil might provoke the separatist dreams of its own Kurdish minority, has threatened that Kurdistan will pay “a price” in the event of a “yes” vote.
The autonomous region’s economy is heavily dependent on oil exports via a pipeline running through Turkey to the Mediterranean.
Israel is alone in openly supporting Kurdish independence.
KRG officials have sought to downplay concerns, with the Iraqi Kurdish envoy to Iran Nazem Dabbagh saying in July the referendum was more about “solving problems with Iraq” than breaking away.
Barzani has said a “yes” vote would not lead to a unilateral declaration of independence but rather kick-start “serious discussions” with Baghdad.
Some believe the vote is also designed to help Barzani stay in power, two years after his mandate as president expired.
Kurdish officials said the real test in the referendum will not be the result itself but the level of participation. If it doesn’t reach 70 percent, the poll will be a failure, they said.
Not everyone in Iraqi Kurdistan supports the vote, especially among the current government’s political rivals.
Rebwar Khudar of the KRG’s Jamaa Islamiya opposition movement said the referendum was premature.
“Before the referendum, we must put our Kurdish internal affairs in order and hold a real dialogue with our neighboring countries so they will support us,” he said.
But in Irbil, many are looking forward to having the chance to finally cast a vote for their people’s independence.
“I will vote ‘yes’ with all 10 fingers,” said Berwar Aziz, 23, flashing a wide smile in the shop where he sells scarves near in the city’s famed citadel.


Treasury Secretary: US ‘could not be happier’ with Bahrain outcome

Updated 7 min 39 sec ago
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Treasury Secretary: US ‘could not be happier’ with Bahrain outcome

  • Mnuchin confident of raising the first $4 billion soon

MANAMA: Jared Kushner’s “workshop” aimed at securing economic prosperity for Palestine closed with optimistic forecasts from President Donald Trump’s special adviser that it could be the basis for a forthcoming political deal with Israel.

Kushner told journalists at a post-event briefing: “I think that people are all leaving very energized, very pleasantly surprised at how many like-minded people they see. It is a solvable problem economically, and the reason why we thought it was important to lay out the economic vision before we lay out the political vision is because we feel we need people to see what the future can look like.

“The Palestinian people have been promised a lot of things over the years that have not come true. We want to show them that this is the plan, this is what can happen if there is a peace deal.”

The next stage, before a political deal is attempted, will be to get feedback from the event and agree to commitments for the $50 billion package for Palestine and other regional economies.

“I think you need $50 billion to really do this the right way, to get a paradigm shift,” Kushner added.

US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said: “I could not be happier how this has gone,” adding that he was “highly confident we will soon have the first $4 billion. It’s going to be like a hot initial public offering.”

Most of the attendees at the event in Manama, Bahrain, gave Kushner’s economic proposals a serious hearing and agreed it was a useful exercise. Mohammed Al-Shaikh, Saudi minister of state, said: “Can it be done? Yes it can, because it was done before. In the mid-1990s to about the year 2000 there was a global coordinated effort by the US and other countries. I was at the World Bank at the time. I saw it. If we could do it then with significantly less money we can do it again.”

Others warned, however, that there was still a long way to go on the political aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and Middle East peace envoy, said a political deal was essential.

“This is an economic plan that, if it is implemented, is going to do enormous good for the Palestinian people. But it isn’t a substitute for the politics. There will be no economic peace. There will be a peace that will be a political component and an economic component. The economy can help the politics and the politics is necessary for the economy to flourish.

“The politics has got to be right in this sense as well. The obvious sense people talk about is how do you negotiate the contours of the boundaries of a Palestinian state in a two state solution,” Blair said.

Christine Lagarde, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, highlighted the work the fund has done in conflict situations. “We had an exceptional result in Rwanda, and a good economic outcome in Mozambique,” she said. But she contrasted this with disappointing results in other African conflicts.

Lagarde said that the aim of the economic plan should be to create jobs. “The focus should be on job-intensive industries, like agriculture, tourism and infrastructure.”

Willem Buiter, special economic adviser to US banking giant Citi, said there were obstacles to the Kushner plan succeeding. “Necessary conditions for any progress are peace, safety and security. And there must be high-quality governance and the rule of law in Palestine,” he said.

He also suggested external funding should be in the form of grants or equity, rather than loans. “We should not burden a country trying to escape from its past with high debts,” he added.

Some attendees warned of the risks to investor funds in the current political situation in the Middle East. 

But Khalid Al-Rumaihi, chief executive of the Bahrain Economic Development Board, said: “Risk is not new to the region. We’ve tackled it for the past 30 to 40 years, but that has not stopped investment flowing in.

“Investors trade risk for return, and the Middle East has learned to cope with risk and conflict. There are pockets where the risk is high and Palestine is one of them. But I remain positive. The return in the region is higher to compensate for the risk,” he added.

At a session of regional finance ministers, Mohammed Al-Jadaan of Saudi Arabia said: “The region is in desperate need of prosperity and hope. There is a way forward, but you need political commitment.”

UAE Finance Minister Obaid Al-Tayer added: “We are decoupling politics from economics. If it’s the only initiative on the table we should all give it a chance.”