ARBIL: The president of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region asked its parliament yesterday to plan a referendum on Kurdish independence, signalling his impatience with Baghdad, which is fighting to repel Sunni insurgents and struggling to form a new government.
The United States has urged the Kurds to stand with Baghdad as Iraq faces an onslaught by Sunni Muslim militants led by an Al Qaeda offshoot who have seized large parts of the north and west and are threatening to march on the capital.
Iraq’s five million Kurds, who have governed themselves in relative peace since the 1990s, have expanded their territory by as much as 40 percent in recent weeks as the sectarian insurgency has threatened to split the country.
Kurdish President Massoud Barzani asked lawmakers to form a committee to organize a referendum on independence and pick a date for the vote.
“The time has come for us to determine our own fate and we must not wait for others to determine it for us,” Barzani said in a closed session of the Kurdish parliament that was later broadcast on television.
“For that reason, I consider it necessary ... to create an independent electoral commission as a first step and, second, to make preparations for a referendum.”
Barzani’s call came days after Kurds and Sunnis walked out of the newly-elected Iraqi parliament’s first session in Baghdad, complaining that the majority Shias had failed to nominate a prime minister.
Many Kurds have long wanted to declare independence and now sense a golden opportunity, with Baghdad weak and Sunni armed groups in control of northern cities such as Mosul and Tikrit.
Barzani, often at odds with the central government, indicated that his people would not wait on Baghdad forever.
“We will not deal with those who have sabotaged the country,” he said. “Iraq has divided itself and we are not responsible for that”.
Many see the Shia Prime Minister, Nouri Al Maliki, as the main obstacle to resolving the crisis and hope that he will step aside.
Maliki’s government, bolstered by civilian volunteers and Shia militias, has managed to stop the militant advance short of the capital, but has been unable to take back the cities that government forces abandoned.
The army failed last week to take back Tikrit, 160 km north of Baghdad, and remained on the outskirts of the city yesterday, according to the prime minister’s military spokesman, Lieutenant General Qassim Atta.
In the northeasterly province of Diyala, 14 militants were killed in fighting with security forces, local police said.
The head of the region’s police, Jamil Al Shimmeri, said security forces had taken back control of the village of Showhani near the town of Muqdadiya, 80 km northeast of Baghdad.
Insurgents have been present in Diyala for the past several weeks, following their rapid seizure of Mosul, one of Iraq’s largest cities, to the north.
WASHINGTON: Iraqi security forces will probably not be able to recapture ground they have lost to Islamist militants without assistance, the top US military officer said yesterday.
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that US advisers now in Iraq were reporting that Iraq’s military was “capable of defending Baghdad but it “would be challenged to go on the offense, mostly logistically challenged.”
“If you’re asking me will the Iraqis at some point be able to go back on the offensive, to recapture the part of Iraq that they’ve lost, I think that’s a really broad campaign quality question,” Dempsey told reporters at the Pentagon. “Probably not by themselves.”
“They didn’t collapse in the face of a fight. They collapsed in the face of a future that didn’t hold out any hope for them,” Dempsey said.
Unless the Iraqi government bridges sectarian differences and “gets the message out that it really does intend to allow participation by all groups, everything we’re talking about makes no difference,” he said.