Iraq’s Kurds set for contentious independence vote

Yes or no: an employee with the Kurdish electoral commission in Arbil shows a ballot book for Monday's vote. (AFP)
Updated 24 September 2017
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Iraq’s Kurds set for contentious independence vote

Irbil, Iraq: Iraqi Kurds were preparing to vote in a referendum set for Monday on independence for their autonomous northern region, despite warnings within the country and from neighbors Iran and Turkey.
Iran upped the pressure on Sunday, announcing it had blocked all flights to and from Kurdistan at Baghdad’s request.
Iraq’s federal government has called the referendum unconstitutional and there are concerns the vote could lead to unrest.
Washington and many Western countries have also called for its postponement or cancelation, saying it will hamper the fight against the Daesh group.
But in regional capital Irbil, the political heartland of President Massud Barzani who initiated the referendum, Kurdish flags were everywhere.
Most in the city said they would vote, but some also feared the possible consequences.
“We look forward to hearing what the situation will be after September 25, as most Kurds will vote for independence to fulfil our dream of an independent state,” said laborer Ahmad Souleiman, 30.
“What we’re afraid of is that our enemies have evil intentions toward us.”
Iran and Turkey have sizeable Kurdish populations of their own and fear the vote will stoke separatist aspirations at home.
Iran’s official IRNA news agency cited a security spokesman Sunday as saying: “At the request of the central government of Iraq, all flights from Iran to Sulaymaniyah and Irbil, as well as all flights through our airspace originating from the Kurdistan region, have been stopped.”
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim again denounced the referendum on Sunday, saying it would “further fuel existing instability, lack of authority and chaos in the region.”
Some five million Kurds are expected to vote in the three provinces that have since 2003 formed the autonomous region of Kurdistan but also in territories disputed with Baghdad such as the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.
“We all support independence because we don’t see the benefit of staying in Iraq. But we’re afraid of plots by neighboring countries,” 27-year-old clothes seller Kamaran Mohammed said in Irbil.
While an independent homeland has long been an aspiration in the Kurdish diaspora, the ethnic group’s two main parties in Iraq differ on how to make it a reality.
Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani are at opposite ends of the spectrum politically on the issue.
The PUK has backed an alternative plan put forward by the United Nations, and supported by Washington, for immediate negotiations on future relations in exchange for dropping the referendum.
In Sulaymaniyah, the PUK-controlled second city of the autonomous region, enthusiasm for the vote was muted.
“Since I was a child, I’ve dreamt of the day our flag appears at the United Nations,” said Hama Rashid Hassan, 51.
But others on Sunday were more cautious.
“I will vote ‘no’ tomorrow because I’m afraid of an embargo on the region, of civil war with the Hashed Al-Shaabi (grouping of Shiite paramilitaries), and waking up and seeing Turkish soldiers patrolling,” said 30-year-old teacher Kamiran Anwar.
The most sensitive sticking point is Kirkuk where there was a run on food supplies in the city Saturday as residents stocked up in case of post-referendum trouble.
On Saturday, the PUK proposed to Barzani that voting not take place in disputed areas but on Sunday party official Adnan Mufti said a deal had been agreed for the referendum to go ahead in Kirkuk.
Home to Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens, Kirkuk is disputed between the federal government and Iraq’s Kurds who say it is historically theirs.
They argue that the late dictator Saddam Hussein chased them out and replaced them with Arabs.
Threats are growing inside Iraq against the Kurdish move.
“There will be a high price to pay by those who organized this referendum, a provocation aimed at destroying relations between Arabs and Kurds,” said Hashed Al-Shaabi leader Faleh Al-Fayad.
“As soon as the referendum takes place there will be a legal and constitutional reaction.”
The Hashed grouping of paramilitary units was created in 2014 to battle the Daesh group.
Iran-backed militia Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, which comes under the Hashed umbrella, urged Baghdad to “take legal measures to confront this project that threatens civil peace and national security.”
Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards also began military exercises Sunday along the border with Iraqi Kurdistan.
Such exercises are common in the region, due to the persistent threat posed by Kurdish separatists, who regularly carry out cross-border attacks against Iranian security forces.


Israel clears soldiers in 2014 ‘Black Friday’ Gaza assault

Updated 49 min 56 sec ago
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Israel clears soldiers in 2014 ‘Black Friday’ Gaza assault

  • A military fact-finding mission into the “Black Friday” assault showed that a criminal investigation was “not warranted”
  • It acknowledged, however, that up to 70 civilians were "unintentionally killed"

JERUSALEM: Israel’s military on Wednesday closed its probe into a deadly 2014 assault in Gaza that followed the capture of a soldier despite a rights group’s charge of possible war crimes.
A military fact-finding mission into the “Black Friday” assault in which Amnesty says more than 130 Palestinian civilians died during the 2014 Gaza war showed that a criminal investigation was “not warranted,” the army said in a statement.
It acknowledged, however, that up to 70 civilians were “unintentionally killed as a result of attacks directed at military targets and military operatives.”
At least 42 Palestinian militants were also killed, the statement said, citing information gathered by the military advocate general.
The assault in Rafah, southern Gaza, on August 1, 2014 was launched after the kidnapping of Israeli Lt. Hadar Goldin shortly after the announcement of a cease-fire.
Two other soldiers were killed in fighting that led to the kidnapping in the Hamas-run enclave, while Goldin himself was later declared dead.
In response, the military implemented the so-called Hannibal Directive — a controversial procedure which allows for an intensive military response to secure the rescue of a captured soldier.
Israel bombed the city of Rafah and the surrounding area near the border with Egypt.
In 2015, Amnesty International said there had been “strong evidence” of war crimes by Israeli forces as it published a detailed analysis of the assault using eyewitness accounts, satellite imagery, photos and videos.
According to Amnesty, at least 135 civilians were killed in the air and ground assault.
Civilians had begun to return home due to the cease-fire announcement, Amnesty said, alleging “massive and prolonged bombardment began without warning while masses of people were on the streets.”
Israel’s statement on Wednesday said the use of force was “in accordance with operational considerations and with an effort to mitigate, as much as possible, harm to civilians.”
“No grounds were found to support the allegation that the objective of the (military’s) actions were to extract revenge following the abduction of Lt. Goldin,” it said.
The statement said there was no evidence that the Hannibal Directive led to “the use of force in a disproportionate or unrestrained manner.”
The decades-old directive has since been revoked by the military and replaced with a new one.
More than 2,250 Palestinians were killed, including more than 500 children, in the 2014 war, the third between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza since 2008.
Seventy-three people were killed on the Israeli side, including 67 soldiers.