Iraqi Kurdish leaders are vowing to press ahead with an independence referendum on Monday despite intense pressure from the Iraqi government, which claims the plebiscite is illegal, and the international community that is nearly unanimous in its opposition to the vote.
Masoud Barzani is expected to make a final announcement on Saturday about the fate of the plebiscite, but he already seemed to have his mind made-up on Friday when he said Kurds were ready "to pay any price for freedom."
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Washington is among those issuing stern warnings to the Kurds. US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the price would be high "for all Iraqis, including Kurds."
She said the US is urging the Kurds to "accept the alternative" — talks between the northern Kurdish region and Iraq's central government that the U.S.
Negotiations aimed at persuading Barzani to change his mind are still ongoing, according to officials close to the discussions.
"Nothing is definitive yet. Discussions are continuing to try to offer him serious guarantees that will convince him to change his mind," said one official who did not wish to be identified.
Fearing Kurdish separatists
During a campaign stop in the regional capital of Irbil on Friday, Barzani said it was too late to cancel the vote.
"The referendum is no longer in my hands, nor is it in those of the [political] parties — it is in your hands," Barzani told a large crowd at a football stadium. "We say that we are ready for serious open-minded dialogue with Baghdad, but after September 25, because now it is too late."
The Iraqi government fears a vote for independence will increase violent conflict in a nation that has essentially been at war with itself since the US-led invasion of the country in 2003.
Neighboring Iran and Turkey also oppose the referendum fearing such a vote will further separatist movements among large Kurdish minorities in their own countries that could lead to an independent Kurdistan carved out across Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
Turkey has been engaged in a violent separatist battle with its Kurdish minority in the east of the country for more than 30 years.
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Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also joined the fray, expressing Russia's opposition. He told his Iraqi counterpart, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, that Moscow supported Iraq's territorial integrity and sovereignty.
The UN Security Council warned on Thursday that the referendum was "potentially destabilizing."
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The council urged "dialogue and compromise" to address differences between the Iraqi government and the regional authorities. It also warned that the vote could weaken the military campaign against the Islamic State jihadist group, "in which Kurdish forces have played a critical role."
Israel appears to be the only state backing the Kurdish separatists.
bik/sms (AFP, Reuters)