Australia fears a referendum on Kurdish independence risks further destabilisation of Iraq and could distract from the fight against Islamic State militants.
Iraq’s al-Abadi government this week won a last-ditch Supreme Court bid to suspend the poll, scheduled for Monday.
But the Kurdistan regional government is determined to push ahead, despite the ruling and an international chorus of condemnation.
“Holding a referendum at this time risks causing further instability in Iraq that would weaken both the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan regional government,” an Australian foreign affairs department spokeswoman said in a statement.
However, the federal government supported genuine political representation and non-discriminatory policies for Iraqi Kurds, and acknowledged their long-standing aspirations for autonomy and their difficult history.
To be sustainable, any changes to the Kurdistan regional government’s status would need to be negotiated and agreed with the Iraqi central government, the spokeswoman said.
Lowy Institute fellow Lydia Khalil said the Kurdish leadership pushing for the referendum see it as “their time”.
But it’s also a welcome political distraction for the regional government President Masoud Barzani in the wake of political dissent and corruption scandals, Ms Khalil told AAP.
“I think an eleventh-hour decision to pull back is unlikely at this point,” she said.
“These are individuals who are older, who have been involved in the decades of struggle… they see it as their chance because Islamic State is largely defeated… and they have defacto control over Kirkuk and they aren’t getting much cooperation from Baghdad.”
She said it would be wrong to assume the vote will be an automatic ‘yes’.
“I would not be surprised if it comes out very close, or inconclusive,” she said.
WHAT’S ALL THE FUSS ABOUT?
* Iraq’s Kurds have a long-held dream of statehood. They were brutally oppressed under dictator Saddam Hussein, whose military in the 1980s killed at least 50,000 of them, many with chemical weapons.
* The Kurds established a regional government in 1992 after the US enforced a no-fly zone across the north following the Gulf War. After the 2003 US-led invasion ousted Saddam, the region secured constitutional recognition of its autonomy, but remained part of the Iraqi state.
* Kurdish regional leaders hope the referendum will push Baghdad to the negotiating table and create a path for independence.
WHERE IS KURDISTAN?
* It’s in northern Iraq and is Iraq’s only autonomous region.
WHO’S CRANKY ABOUT THE REFERENDUM?
* Iraq: Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi says the vote is a “hostile move toward the whole Iraqi population” and accuses the Kurdish leadership of weakening positions in the fight against IS militants. He said Iraq could use military force if the referendum leads to violence
* Turkey: President Tayyip Erdogan is threatening sanctions and has sent troops and tanks to the border for a military exercise. Turkey has a large Kurdish population, is battling Kurdish insurgents and opposes the Kurds’ moves toward independence. It is also concerned that the referendum covers disputed areas such has Kirkuk, which is home to Turkmen, Arabs, Kurds and Christians.
* Iran: Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has spoken out against the vote. Iran has its own Kurdish minority and the central government dismantled a self-proclaimed Soviet-backed Kurdish government in the 1940s.
* The United States: A State Department spokeswoman said the decision to hold the referendum in disputed areas is especially de-stabilising, raising tensions which IS and other extremist groups are now seeking to exploit.
* The United Nations: Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called on the leaders across Iraq to approach the matter with patience and restraint. He argued a unilateral decision to push ahead with the poll would detract from reconstruction efforts and the dignified return of the more than three million refugees and internally displaced people.