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Al Monitor: Mlitary commanders and diplomats from both Iran and the United States are swarming Iraqi Kurdistan in a last-ditch attempt to convince the Kurds, an important ally in the war against the Islamic State (IS), to either postpone the planned Sept. 25 referendum for independence or cancel it all together.
Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s powerful Quds Force, and Brett McGurk, the US special anti-IS envoy accompanied by US Ambassador Douglas Silliman, were shuttling this week between Baghdad, Erbil and Sulaimaniyah to convince all sides to come to an agreement.
“Both the Iranians and the Americans were in agreement about the referendum and reiterated that it should not take place,” a source briefed about the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan’s (PUK) separate meetings with American and Iranian officials on Sept. 11 told Al-Monitor.
Both Iran and the United States also separately conveyed similar messages to Gorran movement officials. The latter believe that the referendum should be postponed until regional and international support is secured. “We will not support you, and you will be on your own,” a Gorran official told Al-Monitor when recounting a meeting with the American ambassador. Indeed, “The United States is 100% opposed to the referendum on September 25,” Weshyar Omar, who was part of the Gorran delegation meeting with the Americans on Sept. 13, quoted McGurk as saying.
“Until now, we have held back the [Hashid Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Units (PMU)] from attacking, but I will not bother to do that anymore,” Soleimani warned the senior PUK officials, the source briefed on the meeting told Al-Monitor. “Just look at Mandali and what happened there. That is the beginning,” he cautioned, referring to the Sept. 11 incident in which a group of over a hundred Iranian-backed Iraqi militia fighters arrived in the disputed subdistrict of Mandali in Diyala province, 100 kilometers (62 miles) northeast of Baghdad, and forced the Kurdish head of the town’s council out of his job and announced that the town will not be included in the Kurdistan referendum. The incident came three days after Hadi Ameri, the head of the Badr Brigade — an important component of the PMU — warned that Iraq will stay united and if the Kurdistan referendum went ahead it could create a civil war in the country. In a direct challenge to the Kurds, on Sept. 12 and 13 respectively, Diyala and Salahuddin provincial councils canceled the plans to hold the referendum in disputed areas within their provincial boundaries.
Meanwhile, the de facto president of the Kurdistan region and the man behind the referendum push, Massoud Barzani, said on Sept. 13 in a speech in the city of Akre near Erbil that no alternatives have been presented for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to reconsider its decision to hold the referendum later this month. “We want to extend the hand of brotherhood to all sides, but if any side wants to fight us, they can try it,” Barzani warned while standing underneath a sign that read “Yes to the State of Kurdistan, 25/9/2017.”
While both Iran and the United States object to the referendum, their reasoning appears to be different. Washington is worried that the plebiscite will weaken the position of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ahead of the April 2018 general elections. The logic of the United States is that any loss for Abadi will be a gain for Iran and its supporters — including the PMU. Tehran, on the other hand, is worried that the referendum is an American and Israeli ploy to create further instability in the region and endanger Iran’s security by influencing its 8-million strong Kurdish population.