Conflict & Justice

Iraq's Supreme Court orders suspension of Kurdish independence referendum

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Kurds celebrate to show their support for the upcoming independence referendum in Erbil, in northern Iraq.

Credit:

Azad Lashkari/Reuters

Iraq's Supreme Court Monday ordered the suspension of a Sept. 25 referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan, as pressure mounted on the Kurds to call off the vote.

"The Supreme Court has issued the order to suspend organizing the referendum set for Sept. 25 ... until it examines the complaints it has received over this plebiscite being unconstitutional," it said.

Court spokesman Ayas al-Samouk told AFP it had "received several complaints." A parliamentary source said at least eight lawmakers had called on the court to intervene on constitutional ground.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's office said it had also filed a complaint against the referendum in the oil-rich autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq on constitutional grounds.

There was no immediate reaction from Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani, who called the referendum and has so far resisted pressure from Baghdad, Iraq's neighbors Turkey and Iran, as well as from the United States and its Western allies that oppose the poll.

Related: Kurds have a long list of reasons for seeking independence

Britain's Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said he would try to persuade Barzani at a meeting later Monday in the Kurdish capital of Erbil.

"I will be this afternoon in Erbil to tell Massud Barzani that we do not support the Kurdish referendum," he said at a press conference in Baghdad.

"We are committed to the integrity of Iraq. We are working with the UN on alternatives to this referendum," he said before heading to the northern city.

The United States and other Western nations are backing a UN-supported "alternative" plan for immediate negotiations on future relations in exchange for dropping the referendum.

Washington argues that the vote will weaken Arab-Kurdish joint military operations that have helped to send ISIS jihadists into retreat in both Iraq and war-torn Syria.

Israel has openly supported Kurdish independence.

Referendum as leverage

Barzani has said a "yes" vote would not trigger an immediate declaration of independence but rather kick-start "serious discussions" with Baghdad.

He has mustered huge popular support for the vote, with the streets of Erbil festooned with red, white and green Kurdish flags and large crowds holding nightly rallies.

The non-Arab Kurds — more than 25 million people spread across Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria — have long sought a state of their own.

According to analysts, Barzani is using the referendum as leverage in his Kurdish Regional Government's longstanding disputes with federal authorities in Baghdad over territory and oil exports.

The regional government, also known by the initials KRG, has already expanded the territory it effectively controls and its peshmerga forces have seized areas outside its borders from ISIS.

Oil-rich Kirkuk province, disputed by Baghdad and Erbil, has voted to take part in the referendum in defiance of the federal Iraqi authorities.

The government responded by firing Kirkuk's Kurdish governor, who has refused to leave his post. Rumors are rife that rival communities are stockpiling arms.

The Turkish government, concerned that the referendum might stir separatist dreams among Kurds in Turkey, has threatened Erbil with "a price" to pay if the vote goes ahead.

Turkey launched a military drill featuring tanks close to the Iraqi border on Monday, its army said.

The KRG's economy is heavily dependent on oil exports via a pipeline running through Turkey to the Mediterranean.

Iran, with a sizeable Kurdish minority of its own, warned Sunday that Iraqi Kurdish independence would mean an end to all border and security arrangements with the KRG.

By AFP's Sarah Benhaida in Baghdad.