[ISRAEL IS THE ONLY COUNTRY TO SUPPORT KURDISH INDEPENDENCE.]
The Trump administration demanded in unusually strong terms Friday that Kurdish leaders in Iraq cancel a referendum on independence set for later this month, saying it was “distracting” from the military effort against Islamic State terrorists.
The White House statement came hours after the parliament of Iraqi Kurdistan voted to go ahead with the referendum. The developments are the latest in an intensifying campaign, some of it waged on Capitol Hill, over whether the Kurds should hold the vote. It’s an especially sensitive issue because the Kurds are critical U.S. allies in the anti-terrorism fight in Iraq and Syria, providing ground troops that have scored numerous successes.
“The United States does not support the Kurdistan Regional Government’s intention to hold a referendum later this month,” White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Friday. “The United States has repeatedly emphasized to the leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government that the referendum is distracting from efforts to defeat [the Islamic State] and stabilize the liberated areas.”
The Sept. 25 referendum is advisory — meaning Iraqi Kurds will vote on whether they support creating an independent Kurdish state, giving their leaders a mandate to start negotiating an exit. It is expected to result in a “yes” for independence.
In addition to the United States, Iraq’s central government, Turkey and Iran are among critics of the referendum. The latter two, in particular, fear it will bolster Kurdish separatists in their territory.
Kurdish officials have expressed surprise and frustration over the international response. The Kurds in Iraq have long aspired to independence and spent years considering whether to hold a referendum. Kurds make up 15 percent to 20 percent of Iraq’s 37 million people, concentrated in a largely autonomous region in the north. They have faced brutal repression in the past.
The Kurdish Regional Government’s representative in Washington, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, told POLITICO in a recent interview that over the past two years she had found a fair amount of support among U.S. lawmakers for the Kurds’ aspirations, though many are keeping it quiet.
“We know, by the way, that the State Department and possibly the [Defense Department] are personally contacting members of Congress, senators, representatives, asking them not to support the referendum,” Abdul Rahman said. “We’re very serious about independence. It’s kind of disheartening that for two to three years we talked about a referendum and the U.S. said that it was surprised.”
She likened the referendum to British voters’ decision last year to leave the European Union, spawning a lengthy negotiation process known as Brexit. Abdul Rahman acknowledged that a formal declaration of Kurdish independence is not imminent but said any future “negotiations are not going to be open-ended.”
It’s not clear where President Donald Trump himself stands on whether the Kurds deserve their own country. But some top members of his administration, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary James Mattis, have spent weeks trying to persuade Kurdish leaders to call off the vote.
Instead of holding the referendum, Trump aides are urging the Kurds to enter into new talks with the Iraqi central government that could, perhaps, lead to even more autonomy for their region of the country. In her statement Friday, Sanders reiterated that call for a new “serious and sustained dialogue with Baghdad.”
A day earlier, Brett McGurk, a U.S. special envoy to the coalition fighting the Islamic State, announced that he had presented an alternative plan to the Kurds that would include new talks with the government in Baghdad. He did not give any details, however, and Friday’s vote by the Kurdish parliament appeared to rebuke him.
Kurdish leaders have suggested they may delay the vote if they can get ironclad guarantees from international leaders, such as the U.S. president and the United Nations secretary-general, that they will one day support a Kurdish referendum and will recognize its outcome. But so far they’ve not been assured that such guarantees are forthcoming.
Abdul Rahman noted that despite the Kurds’ strong overall relationship with the United States, they don’t need American permission to hold a referendum. The U.S., she said, should start preparing for the reality that Sept. 26 will bring.
“Once we’re independent,” Abdul Rahman said, “they will look at us differently.”