(Reuters) Iraq’s Kurds may consider the possibility of postponing a planned Sept. 25 referendum on independence in return for financial and political concessions from the central government in Baghdad, a senior Kurdish official said.
A Kurdish delegation is visiting Baghdad to sound out proposals from Iraqi leaders that might convince the Kurds to postpone the vote, according to Mala Bakhtiar, executive secretary of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Politburo.
The United States and other Western nations fear the vote could ignite a fresh conflict with Baghdad and possibly neighboring countries, diverting attention from the ongoing war against Islamic State (IS) militants in Iraq and Syria.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson formally asked Massoud Barzani, president of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), 10 days ago to postpone the referendum.
“What thing would Baghdad be prepared to offer to the (Kurdish) region” in return for postponing the referendum, Bakhtiar, speaking about the talks with the Shi’ite Muslim-led Baghdad ruling coalition, said in an interview.
On the economic side, Baghdad should be ready to help the Kurds overcome a financial crisis and settle debts owed by their government, he told Reuters in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniya.
He estimated the debt at $10 to $12 billion, about equal to the KRG’s annual budget, owed to public works contractors and civil servants and Kurdish peshmerga fighters whose salaries have not been paid in full for several months.
At the political level, Baghdad should commit to agree to settle the issue of disputed regions, such as the oil-rich area of Kirkuk where Arab and Turkmen communities also live.
The Kurdish delegation would then convey the proposals to Kurdish political parties to make a decision on whether they are good enough to justify a postponment of the vote, he said, insisting on the Kurdish right to hold the vote at a later date.
“We don’t accept to postpone the referendum with nothing in return and without fixing another time to hold it,” he said.
Baghdad stopped payments from the Iraqi federal budget to the KRG in 2014 after the Kurds began exporting oil independently from Baghdad, via a pipeline to Turkey.
The Kurds say they need the extra revenue to cope with increased costs incurred by the war against Islamic State and a large influx into KRG territory of displaced people.
The self-proclaimed IS “caliphate” effectively collapsed in July when U.S.-backed Iraqi forces completed the recapture of Mosul from the militants in a nine-month campaign in which Kurdish peshmerga fighters took part.
The Sunni Muslim jihadists remain, however, in control of territory in western Iraq and eastern Syria. The United States has pledged to maintain its support of allied forces in both countries until the militants’ total defeat.