Iraq says may use force if Kurdish referendum turns violent

BAGHDAD (AP) — Iraq is prepared to intervene militarily if the Kurdish region’s planned independence referendum results in violence, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview Saturday.

If the Iraqi population is “threatened by the use of force outside the law, then we will intervene militarily,” he said.

Iraq’s Kurdish region plans to hold the referendum on support for independence from Iraq on Sept. 25 in three governorates that make up their autonomous region, and in disputed areas controlled by Kurdish forces but which are claimed by Baghdad.

“If you challenge the constitution and if you challenge the borders of Iraq and the borders of the region, this is a public invitation to the countries in the region to violate Iraqi borders as well, which is a very dangerous escalation,” al-Abadi said.

The leaders of Iraq’s Kurdish region have said they hope the referendum will push Baghdad to come to the negotiating table and create a path for independence. However, al-Abadi said such negotiations would likely be complicated by the referendum vote.

“It will make it harder and more difficult,” he said, but added, “I will never close the door to negotiations. Negotiations are always possible.”

Iraq’s Kurds have come under increasing pressure to call off the vote from regional powers and the United States, a key ally, as well as Baghdad.

In a statement released late Friday night the White House called for the Kurdish region to abandon the referendum “and enter into serious and sustained dialogue with Baghdad.”

“Holding the referendum in disputed areas is particularly provocative and destabilizing,” the statement read.

Tensions between Irbil and Baghdad have flared in the lead-up to the Sept. 25 vote.

Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region, has repeatedly threatened violence if Iraqi military or Shiite militias attempt to move into disputed territories that are now under the control of Kurdish fighters known as Peshmerga, specifically the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

“It’s chaotic there,” Muhammad Mahdi al-Bayati, a senior leader of Iraq’s mostly Shiite fighters known as the popular mobilization forces, said earlier this week, describing Kirkuk in the lead up to the vote.

Al-Bayati’s forces — sanctioned by Baghdad, but many with close ties to Iran — are deployed around Kirkuk as well as other disputed territories in Iraq’s north.

“Everyone is under pressure,” he said, explaining that he feared a rogue group…

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