“The people of Kurdistan will decide on their future and how they want to live,” said Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani to an audience of several hundred journalists on Saturday.
In a press conference carried live by local channels, Barzani vowed that the Kurds would go ahead with a referendum on Monday.
Since June, the Kurdistan region in Iraq has been planning the vote, which many in the international community have opposed
In the weeks leading up it, there have been numerous calls to postpone the referendum. On Saturday, however, Barzani laid out the historical reasons for the vote. He also sought to assure the region and the world that it was not only the right of Kurds to decide their future, but that neighboring countries and Iraq had no reason to oppose the process.
“What we have done is ask people to express their votes in a peaceful democratic way.”
Barzani said that Kurds have suffered for 100 years as part of Iraq. In the 1980s, they were the victims of a genocide under Saddam Hussein. But in 2003, the Kurdish region, which had carved out its own autonomy in the 1990s, sought to begin a new stage in relations with Baghdad.
“We had a lot of hope in this new Iraq that this would be a new opportunity of federalism, pluralism and democracy and we can live together in coexistence.”
Barzani added, however, that Baghdad violated the 2005 constitution of Iraq, depriving the Kurdish region of its budget and violating power-sharing agreements.
“They galvanized populism in the south and middle of Iraq,” he noted, describing threats and hatred that politicians had used against Kurds.
The Kurdish region covers some 20% of Iraq and has grown in recent years as it swelled with refugees fleeing Islamic State and sectarian Shi’ite militias. The region hosts more than one million internally displaced people. Barzani said one reason for the referendum was to build a society based on “citizenship, multiculturalism and democracy,” as opposed to a theocratic sectarian state.
He sought to allay fears that the referendum could lead to conflict between the Kurdistan region and its neighbors, including Baghdad. “It is better to be good neighbors,” he said. In response to those countries which said the date had been rushed, Barzani said the idea of a referendum had been spoken about by Kurds for years.
“We gave instructions to the Peshmerga [armed forces] to keep calm and not respond to provocations and let people vote in tranquility and peace.”
He also responded to questions about international isolation after the vote.
Kurds dance ahead of the independence referendum set for Monday, September 25.
“What we have done is ask people to express their votes in a peaceful democratic way, which is not a crime.”
Barzani also expressed hope that Turkey would not close the border, saying it would be of “no benefit to both sides.” He urged patience until the day after the referendum to see “which states will help us and support us and which will be half-hearted in standing against us,” implying that many states have paid lip service to opposing the Kurdish vote but that such comments were for media consumption.
The Kurdish regional president also claimed the referendum would not lead immediately to independence but to a long process of dialogue with Baghdad.
He noted the excellent cooperation between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi Army, in order to allay concerns of the US-led coalition that the referendum would distract from the war on ISIS.
Barzani said the Peshmerga were ready to work with Iraqi security forces during the ongoing Hawija operation against the extremists.
“I want to underline that we are not going back to Baghdad to re-negotiate a failed partnership we had in the past.”
Barzani also highlighted the hypocrisy of some countries which have opposed the referendum. He asked why countries praise the Kurds for fighting Islamic State but do not want to see the families of those who stood against ISIS decide their own future.
“If independence is bad for Kurdistan, then why is it not bad for other countries?” he asked, noting that other countries in Europe have held referendums.
“We have waited 100 years and it [independence] was not delivered and we have decided and our people decided, we took responsibility, we are ready to pay any price for our independence.”