Iraqi Kurdish leaders yesterday offered to freeze the outcome of last month’s vote for independence, taking a step back in a major crisis that prompted Baghdad to seize swathes of disputed territory.
The offer came as world powers scrambled to avert any further escalation of the conflict between the key allies in the fight against the Islamic State group that has seen more than 30 combatants killed.
There was no immediate reaction from Baghdad, but the Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) force, whose mainly Iran-trained Shiite paramilitaries played a major role in the operation against the Kurds, said a freeze did not go far enough and demanded the outright annulment of the independence referendum.
Washington, Moscow and the UN have all pressed Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani to open talks with Baghdad on a way out of the crisis sparked by the fateful Sept. 25 vote that he called.
The Kurdistan Regional Government, led by Barzani, said it would propose to the federal government “the freezing of the results of the referendum ... and the start of an open dialogue” on the basis of the constitution.
It also called for “an immediate ceasefire and cessation of military operations in Kurdistan.”
Since early last week, Iraqi federal troops and allied militia have retaken virtually all of the territory held by the Kurds outside their longstanding three-province autonomous region in the north.
The Hashed al-Shaabi, which has taken a hard line in the dispute with the Kurds, demanded that they annul the independence vote as a precondition for any dialogue.
“The Kurdish proposal is worthless because freezing the referendum means recognizing it and the position of the Iraqi government is clear — the referendum must be annulled,” Hashed spokesman Ahmed al-Assadi said.
The independence referendum deeply divided Iraqi Kurdish leaders and many commanders ordered their forces to pull back without resisting. The loss of so much territory, including the major city of Kirkuk and lucrative oil fields, dealt a huge blow to Kurdish dreams of economic self-sufficiency and eventual independence.
Barzani’s longtime political rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, had opposed the independence vote and backed a UN plan for negotiations on wider Kurdish autonomy.
Washington has made clear that while it will not take sides in the conflict between its Iraq allies, it does not regard Baghdad’s reoccupation of the disputed areas as a fait accompli.
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