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Kurdish independence vote 'severely' damages US efforts to preserve unified Iraq, say experts

Washington : A vote by Iraq’s minority Kurds for independence is a blow to the United States, which has spent years, billions of dollars and the lives of thousands of troops trying to hold Iraq together, former US officials and other policy experts said.

 Kurdish independence vote severely damages US efforts to preserve unified Iraq, say experts

Representational image. AP

A diplomatic drive to forestall Monday’s referendum failed to persuade Kurdish leaders, some of the United States’ closest Middle Eastern allies, in what likely will be seen as fresh proof of diminishing American power, they said.

The Kurds, who have ruled over a semi-autonomous region within Iraq since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, consider the result an historic step in a generations-old quest for a state of their own.

“This is a major setback,” said James Jeffrey, a former US ambassador to Iraq and now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It robs us of the argument that only the US can keep Iraq united.”

Moreover, the vote to give Kurdish leaders a mandate to negotiate independence for their region of more than 8.3 million threatens to ignite more strife. That could hinder US-backed efforts to stabilize Iraq, eliminate the remnants of Islamic State, and similar groups.

“We see considerable risk,” said a US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The gravest danger is a conflict over the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk and other ethnically mixed Kurdish-held areas pitting Iraqi troops and Iran-backed militias against the Peshmerga, the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) US-trained paramilitary force.

“We say keep your eye on the ball,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Tuesday. “This kind of division right now could potentially hurt Iraq.”

“We are still hopeful of getting people to talk through this stuff rather than doing something more drastic", said a second US official, who also requested anonymity.

The referendum was condemned by neighboring Turkey and Iran, which fear it will embolden independence demands by their Kurdish populations. Ankara and Tehran, trading partners of landlocked Iraqi Kurdistan, are threatening retaliation, fueling fears they could intervene militarily.

There were expectations that the US, which said it would not recognize the vote, could use its ties to the Iraqi Kurds to persuade KRG President Masoud Barzani to cancel the referendum in exchange for a guarantee of talks with Baghdad.

The US bid to stop the referendum failed, experts said, in part because the aging Barzani sees fulfilling aspirations for an independent Kurdish state as his legacy.

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Updated Date: Sep 27, 2017 08:23:30 IST

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