In an exclusive interview with FRANCE 24, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan Massoud Barzani says he will not back down on plans to hold a referendum on the semi-autonomous region’s full independence from Baghdad.
The planned referendum on Kurdish independence will take place on September 25 and there will be "no turning back", said the 70-year-old leader in a wide-ranging interview aired on Wednesday.
Talking to FRANCE 24's Marc Perelman in Erbil, the region's capital, Barzani brushed aside criticisms from his neighbours and allies, who have warned of the risk of a conflict with Baghdad at a time when Iraq is still battling against the Islamic State (IS) group.
The Kurdish leader said he had pushed back a request by US President Donald Trump's administration to postpone the referendum. Any attempt to thwart the vote would lead to “catastrophe” and the risk of a “bloody war”, he warned.
Iraq’s central government has already rejected unilateral Kurdish attempts to push for independence, insisting that any decision about the future of the country should involve input from all of its components.
Kurdish officials have said the September vote will be held in the region's three governorates as well as in areas that are disputed by the Kurdish and Iraqi governments, including the flashpoint city of Kirkuk. Those disputed areas have been under Kurdish control since 2014, when Iraqi security forces fled the IS group's onslaught.
Barzani said he would do his utmost to reach a deal with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, though he cautioned that negotiations would not be open-ended. He also warned that Kurdish forces would not sit idly by should Baghdad move to close Kurdish airspace or send in troops.
The veteran leader, who has headed the Kurdistan Regional Government since 2005, said presidential and parliamentary elections would be held in Kurdistan soon after the referendum. He also said that he would not seek another term as president.
Regarding the continuing operations against the IS group, Barzani said the military siege of Mosul would soon end with the jihadists' defeat. However, he cautioned that the aftermath of the battle, including how to pacify and administer the multi-ethnic city and its surroundings, had not been properly planned.
In particular, the Kurdish leader urged the international coalition involved in the operations, which includes US and French special forces, to remain in the Mosul region once the battle is over to prevent the emergence of an extremist successor to the IS group.
Barzani's own Peshmerga forces were instrumental in stemming the jihadist group’s advance across northwestern Iraq in 2014 and then spearheading a counter-offensive. The broad coalition that has been battling to recapture Mosul since late last year also includes Iraqi regular troops, elite forces and Shiite militias.
The latter’s presence in areas near the Syrian border is a problem that needs to be addressed, Barzani warned. He suggested the Shiite militias were acting on behalf of Iran in order to create a corridor that would allow them into war-torn Syria.
Watch the interview live on FRANCE 24 at 11pm Paris time (GMT+2)