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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday strongly criticised the decision of the authorities in Iraq’s Kurdistan region to hold a referendum on independence, calling it “an error and a threat” to the country’s territorial integrity.
Turkey has prided itself on its good ties with the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq’s north, with its leader Massud Barzani a frequent visitor to Ankara. But even as Turkish investment poured into the regional capital of Arbil, Turkey has always kept a wary eye on any moves towards full independence.
Ankara is still battling a more than three-decade insurgency by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for autonomy in southeast Turkey that has claimed tens of thousands of lives. It also strongly opposes any autonomous region for Syrian Kurds in the north of Syria that might result from more than six years of civil war in the country.
“Making a step towards independence in the north of Iraq is an error and a threat for the territorial integrity of Iraq,” Erdogan said in a speech to his party in Ankara. Barzani announced on June 7 that a referendum would be held in Kurdish areas of Iraq on September 25 to ask voters if they want a separate state.
The vote is nonbinding, but the move was greeted with irritation by Baghdad. “We have always defended the territorial integrity of Iraq and we will continue to do so,” said Erdogan, adding that such a referendum “was in the interest of no one”.
Widely seen as the world’s largest stateless people, most Kurds are spread between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. But it is only in Iraq where they have achieved a recognised autonomy. Iraqi Kurdish oil is exported through Turkey, a key economic lifeline for the region.
The PKK, for its part, maintains rear bases in the mountains of northern Iraq even though Barzani has repeatedly expressed discomfort at their presence.