Kurds stick with independence vote, ‘never going back to Baghdad’

A boy rides a bicycle with the flag of Kurdistan in Tuz Khurmato, Iraq. (Reuters)
Updated 25 September 2017
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Kurds stick with independence vote, ‘never going back to Baghdad’

ERBIL, Iraq/ISTANBUL: Iraq’s Kurds will go ahead with a referendum on independence on Monday because their partnership with Baghdad has failed, Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani said on Sunday, shrugging off international opposition to the vote.
In response, the Iraqi government asked the autonomous Kurdish region to hand over control of its international border posts, its international airports and called on foreign countries to stop importing Kurdish crude oil.
It asked “the neighboring countries and the countries of the world to deal exclusively with the federal government of Iraq in regards to entry posts and oil,” according to a statement from Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s office.
The United States and other Western powers have urged Kurdish authorities in the oil producing region to cancel the vote, arguing that it distracts from the fight against Islamic State.
Turkey and Iran have also kept up the pressure to stop the vote, with presidents Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani speaking by phone and expressing concern that it will “bring chaos in the region,” according to Erdogan’s office.
Barzani, at a news conference at his headquarters near Erbil, dismissed the worries of Iraq’s neighbors, committing to respect laws on international boundaries and not seek to redraw the region’s borders.
“We will never go back to the failed partnership” with Baghdad, he said, adding Iraq had become a “theocratic, sectarian state” and not the democratic one that was supposed to be built after the 2003 overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
The vote, expected to result in a comfortable “yes” to independence, is not binding and is meant to give the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) a mandate to negotiate secession with Baghdad and the neighboring countries.
Barzani said Iraq’s Kurds would seek talks with the Shiite-led central government to implement the expected “yes” outcome, even if they take two years or more, to settle land and oil sharing disputes ahead of independence.
Abadi’s government in Iraq regards the referendum as anti-constitutional and in a televised address on Sunday he said it “could lead to ethnic divisions, exposing (the Iraqis) to disastrous dangers that only God knows.”

Earlier, Iranian authorities stopped air traffic to Iraqi Kurdistan’s international airports at Erbil and Sulaimaniya in response to a request from Baghdad, Fars News Agency said. Iran also started war games at the Kurdish border.
Speaking by telephone with Abadi, Iran’s Rouhani voiced support for Iraq’s national unity and territorial integrity, the state news agency IRNA reported.
“Iran fully supports Iraq’s central government,” Rouhani was quoted as telling Abadi.
On Saturday, Turkey’s parliament voted to extend by a year a mandate authorizing the deployment of Turkish troops in Iraq and Syria.
Turkey has also vowed political, economic and security steps without specifying what they are, but Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim reinforced the message on Sunday.
Turkey is the transit route of all crude exported by the landlocked Kurdistan region of Iraq.
“Turkey will never ever tolerate any status change or any new formations on its southern borders,” he said in a speech in the capital Ankara. “The KRG will be primarily responsible for the probable developments after this referendum.”
But Barzani said Ankara “won’t benefit” economically should it close the border with Iraqi Kurdistan.
Tehran and Ankara fear the spread of separatism to their own Kurds. Iran also supports Shiite groups who have been ruling or holding key security and government positions in Iraq since the U.S-led invasion which toppled Saddam Hussein.
Barzani said Kurds will “keep extending their hand” to Iran and Turkey, even if they do not reciprocate. He said he recently met in the Kurdish region Iranian Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Soleimani, who came to convince him to delay the vote.
The KRG has resisted calls to delay the referendum by the United Nations, the United States and Britain who fear it could lead to unrest in disputed areas like multi-ethnic oil-rich Kirkuk, as well as distracting from the war on Islamic State.
But the Iraqi Kurds say the vote acknowledges their crucial contribution in confronting Islamic State after it overwhelmed the Iraqi army in 2014 and seized control of a third of Iraq. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters who control Kirkuk were given instructions not to respond to any provocation meant to disrupt the vote, but they will defend the region if attacked from outside, he said.
The US embassy in Iraq warned its citizens that there might be unrest during the referendum, especially in disputed areas like Kirkuk, also claimed by the Iraqi central government.
The Iranian military drills, part of annual events held in Iran to mark the beginning of the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, were launched in the Oshnavieh border region, according to Iranian State broadcaster IRIB.
Turkey’s military said on Sunday its aircraft launched strikes against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targets in northern Iraq’s Gara region on Saturday after spotting militants preparing to attack Turkish military outposts on the border.


US anti-Daesh office gets reprieve as Syria pullout accelerates

Updated 52 min 45 sec ago
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US anti-Daesh office gets reprieve as Syria pullout accelerates

  • Daesh fighters begin evacuating their final stronghold in southern Damascus
  • US State Department says anti-Daesh office in Syria will stay in business for at least six more months

LONDON: Daesh fighters began evacuating their final stronghold in southern Damascus on Sunday, a monitor said, bringing Syria’s government closer than ever to flushing out the last threat to the capital.
After weeks of combat and heavy casualties, an apparent deal was reached for remaining Daesh fighters to leave Yarmuk and the adjacent district of Tadamun, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Daesh militants burned their headquarters in Yarmuk before boarding buses with their relatives to leave the area, said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.
“The six buses left at dawn, heading east for the Syrian desert,” he added.
Abdel Rahman could not specify how many had left, but said a majority were relatives of militants and not armed. More than two dozen buses remained in Yarmuk for additional evacuations, he said.
Syrian state media and a Palestinian official have denied a deal was reached or that evacuations were taking place.
Yarmuk in particular has been devastated by Syria’s conflict, suffering a crippling government siege since 2012 and ruined by years of fighting.
It was once home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees, as well as Syrians, but just a few hundred remain.
Meanwhile, the State Department unit overseeing the fight against the Daesh will stay in business for at least six more months, reserving an administration plan for the unit’s imminent downgrade even as President Donald Trump presses ahead with a speedy US exit from Syria.
A plan initiated by Rex Tillerson before he was fired as secretary of state in March would have folded the office of the special envoy to the global coalition into the department’s counterterrorism bureau as early as spring, officials said. Tillerson’s successor, Mike Pompeo, canceled the plan this month, and the office will stay an independent entity until at least December, when there will be a new review, said the officials, who weren’t authorized to discuss the plan publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The office reports directly to the secretary of state and the president, and the planned shift would have undercut its status and the priority of its mission. It could have led to staffing and budget cuts as well as the departure of the special envoy, Brett McGurk. He is now expected to remain in his job at least through the end of the year.
Still, the officials said Trump’s intent to reduce the US military and civilian stabilization presence in Syria has not changed and is, in fact, accelerating. The State Department has ended all funding for stabilization programs in Syria’s northwest. Daesh militants have been almost entirely eliminated from the region, which is controlled by a hodgepodge of other extremist groups and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government forces.
At least some of the US money for those projects is expected to be redirected Syria’s northeast where Daesh fighters remain, the officials said.
The conflicting moves of retaining McGurk’s office while pulling out of the northwest illustrate how the administration is being pulled in different directions by Trump’s two competing interests: extricating the US from messy Mideast conflicts and delivering a permanent defeat to Daesh.
Trump has said the United States will be withdrawing from Syria “like very soon.” In late March, the State Department, the Pentagon and intelligence agencies tried to dissuade him from pulling troops out immediately, warning there was a risk Daesh would manage to regroup. Trump relented slightly, but told aides they could have only five months or six months to finish off Daesh and get out.
The US announced in September 2014 that it was forming a coalition of nations to defeat the nascent extremist group that had taken over vast swathes of Iraq and Syria. Days later, President Barack Obama named retired Marine Gen. John Allen the first special presidential envoy for the coalition. McGurk, his deputy, replaced him in 2015.
Almost four years later, Daesh no longer controls territory in Iraq, though US officials say its ideology remains a threat there. The final vestiges of the self-proclaimed caliphate are in Syria, where civil war has made it far trickier to wrest the militants from the few pockets of territory they still control.
Yet, as Trump’s administration eyes an exit as soon as Daesh is vanquished, the broader situation in Syria is not getting any better as far as American interests are concerned.
Assad’s forces are making inroads against the opposition and now control roads between Syria’s three main cities for the first time since the war broke out in 2011. Moscow is solidifying its influence, even hosting Assad for a surprise visit Thursday to Russia, where he met with President Vladimir Putin. And an outbreak of direct fighting between Israel and Iranian forces based in Syria has catalyzed concerns about Tehran’s involvement in Syria and the potential for a broader regional conflict.
“Hopefully, Syria will start to stabilize,” Trump said last week as he met with NATO’s secretary-general at the White House. “You see what’s been happening. It’s been a horror show.”
Nevertheless, there are no signs that Trump is backing away from his determination to limit US involvement to the narrow task of defeating Daesh, leaving to others the longer-term challenges of stabilizing the country, restoring basic services and resolving the civil war.
A $200-million pledge that Tillerson made in February for stabilization programs in Syria remains on hold on Trump’s orders and is under review. Tillerson, who had advocated for maintaining the US presence, was fired shortly after he made the pledge at a conference in Kuwait.
Then the administration this month decided to halt funding US military and reconstruction programs in the Syrian northwest, the officials said. Pending the results of the overall review, the canceled money is expected to be shifted to programs in northeast Syria, where US troops are still battling Daesh, and civilian teams from the State Department and US Agency for International Development are working in newly liberated areas.