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US concerned Kurdish referendum could 'distract' from IS fight

The region consists of three provinces run by an autonomous regional government [AFP]

Date of publication: 9 June, 2017

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The United States has expressed concerns that a recently announced referendum on separating the Kurdistan region from Iraq could distract from the battle against the Islamic State group.

The United States on Thursday warned that a decision by Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region to hold an independence referendum could distract from the fight against the Islamic State group.

The Kurdistan region announced on Wednesday that it would vote on 25 September on whether to split from the rest of Iraq and form an independent nation.

"The United States supports a unified, federal, stable and democratic Iraq," State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters.

The Kurds won many supporters and sympathisers in Washington when they emerged from persecution under the former regime of Saddam Hussein and became allies of US-led intervention.

Although they enjoy almost total autonomy in the northern region today, tensions with the Baghdad government remain over control of oil reserves and the mixed city of Kirkuk. 

The Kurdish region's "peshmerga" fighters have also proved tough allies in the US-led coalition battling the Islamic State extremist group in northern Iraq.

But the United States remains skeptical of the Kurds' long-standing dream of full independence, fearing a split could provoke a new round of conflict in Iraq.

"We understand and appreciate the legitimate aspirations of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan," Nauert said.

"However, we have expressed our concerns to authorities in the Kurdistan Region that holding a referendum - even this non-binding resolution - at this time will distract from more urgent priorities," she added.

Nauert listed those priorities as defeating Islamic State, housing refugees from the fighting, rebuilding the economy and resolving existing political disputes.  

And she said the Kurdish region should resolve its issues with Baghdad "on the basis of the Iraqi constitution."

'Disputed areas'

The region is made up of three provinces that are run by an autonomous regional government and protected by their own security services, providing the basis for a potential state.

But there are major political and economic obstacles to Iraqi Kurdish independence.

The presidency statement on Wednesday said the referendum would include "areas of Kurdistan outside the administration of the region", which were termed "disputed areas" in English. 

This refers to swathes of northern territory that are claimed by both Kurdistan and Baghdad, including the key oil-rich province of Kirkuk.

Opposition in Baghdad to Iraqi Kurdistan becoming independent would become even greater if the region tried to take disputed territory along with it.

Iraqi Kurdistan, like the rest of the country, depends almost entirely on revenue from crude sales to provide government funds.

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