Iraqi forces enter Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk

Iraq’s counter-terrorism forces have taken control of key government buildings in oil-rich Kirkuk. Thousands of Kurds have fled the city, fearing reprisal killings from Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

Iraqi civilians gather as Iraqi forces arrive in the first neighbourhood on the southern outskirts of Kirkuk
  • Iraqi forces entered the city of Kirkuk in Iraqi on Monday, capturing key government buildings including the Kirkuk governor’s building.
  • The incursion into the Kurdish-controlled area prompted thousands of Kurdish residents to flee, with international aid groups warning of the humanitarian fallout.
  • Amid escalating tensions, Germany’s defense ministry withdrew 140 military trainers stationed in northern Iraq to instruct peshmerga fighters involved in the fight against the “Islamic State.”

Iraq’s elite counter-terrorism forces on Monday entered Kirkuk and captured key government buildings in the Kurdish-controlled city, according to security sources. They¬†raised the Iraqi flag over the provincial council’s headquarters in Kirkuk and took control of the governor’s building.

Read more: Kirkuk: What you need to know about the Kurdish-Iraqi dispute

Turkey has offered to help¬†Iraq’s federal government oust Kurdish fighters from Kirkuk after reports that fighters of Turkey’s outlawed¬†Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) were inside the oil-rich city.

Tensions between Baghdad and Iraqi Kurdistan have escalated since the the Iraqi Kurds overwhelmingly voted last month for an independent state in a non-binding referendum, which controversially included disputed territories such as Kirkuk.

What you need to know

  • Following a controversial Kurdish independence referendum, Iraqi forces gave Kurdish forces a Sunday deadline to retreat to positions agreed upon in a 2014 accord.
  • When Kurdish forces failed to do so,¬†Iraqi security forces¬†advanced on areas surrounding oil-rich Kirkuk, culminating in the capture of oil fields, regional government buildings, an airport and a military base on Monday.
  • Kurdish peshmerga forces¬†retreated, effectively allowing¬†Iraqi security forces and Iranian-backed Shiite militias to move into the city unopposed.

‘Impose security’

Iraqi state TV reported that Iraqi forces had¬†taken control of “vast areas” outside of Kirkuk city.

Kurdish peshmerga forces reportedly retreated back from positions outside the city, but were setting up defenses in the city as thousands of civilians fled in cars north to Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. The move by Iraqi forces prompted the German military to withdraw 140 military trainers deployed in northern Iraq to instruct peshmerga fighters.

Read more: What is the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum?

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered security forces “to impose security in Kirkuk in cooperation with the population of the city and the peshmerga.” He said¬†that instructions were given for forces¬†to stay out of the city.

The @IraqiGovt only acted to fulfil its constitutional duty to extend the federal authority,guarantee security & protect the national wealth

The Kurdistan Region Security Council¬†claimed peshmerga¬†had destroyed several US-supplied¬†Humvees belonging to the PMU.¬†Hemin Hawrami, an adviser to Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, quoted the peshmerga command as saying Abadi’s government would “pay a heavy price” for the assult on Kirkuk.

KirkukThousands of Kurdish families fled Kirkuk to the Kurdish cities of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah.

US: ‘Avoid additional escalatory actions’

The US¬†Defense Department, which has supplied and trained both the peshmerga and Iraqi army, urged its two allies in the war against the “Islamic State” (IS) “to avoid additional escalatory actions.”¬†It added that it¬†opposed destabilising actions that distract from the battle against IS militants.

Later, US President Donald Trump said the US will not take sides, but expressed disappointment at the escalating dispute between two allies.

Read more:¬†The Middle East’s complex Kurdish landscape

“We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing. We’re not taking sides,” Trump told reporters. “We’ve had for many years a very good relationship with the Kurds as you know and we’ve also been on the side of Iraq, even though we should have never been there in the first place.”

The Iraqi troops and the Kurdish peshmerga fighters have been engaged in a standoff since Saturday, when they took positions on opposite banks of a river on the southern outskirts of the city of Kirkuk.

Kurdish forces were given a deadline of 2 a.m. local time Sunday (2300 UTC Saturday) to surrender their positions and return to their pre-June 2014 positions.

Watch video03:39

Iraqi forces capture Kurdish positions near Kirkuk ‚Äď Campbell MacDiarmid reports

Turkey offers help against PKK

In a statement, the Turkish foreign ministry said on Monday it supported the Iraqi government in retaking control of Kirkuk, offering to aid Iraqi forces to oust Kurdish forces from the oil-rich city. “We are ready for any form of cooperation with the Iraqi government to end the PKK presence in Iraqi territory,” the ministry said.

Baghdad said on Sunday fighters from Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) were present in Kirkuk among Kurdish peshmerga forces, in what it said amounted to a “declaration of war.”

Read more: In Iraq, minorities pin hopes on a Kurdish state

“It is impossible to remain silent” faced with “a declaration of war towards Iraqis and government forces,”¬†the National Security Council headed by the Iraqi prime minister said in a statement.

The PKK-affiliated ANF News Agency said its fighters had been called to mobilize and¬†form a “defensive line to protect the people.” The PKK has close ties with some Iraqi Kurdish parties, particularly the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Turkey’s offer also stems from its support for its ethnic cousins, the Turkmen, which reside in the Kirkuk province.

Iraqi army in Kirkuk. Iraqi forces roll by a oil production plant outside Kirkuk.

Kirkuk: In Kurdish hands since 2014

Abadi has demanded that Kurdish leaders disavow¬†the September 25 referendum, but the Kurds have rejected the demand. Baghdad¬†called the referendum “anti-constitutional.” Turkey, Iran and the United States were all against the vote.

After the referendum, the Iraqi parliament asked Abadi to use armed force to retake control of¬†Kirkuk, which is inhabited by Kurds as well as Sunni and Shiite Turkmen and Arabs. Last week,¬†Abadi said¬†he would accept a “joint administration”¬†with the Kurds in the province.

Read more: Opinion: Kurds find few friends in independence referendum

The Kurdish peshmerga have controlled Kirkuk since 2014, when it prevented the province’s oil fields from falling into the hands of IS after the Iraqi army collapsed. With Baghdad weak, the Kurds moved to expand territory under their¬†control outside the three provinces that officially make up the Kurdistan region.

The Kurds and Baghdad have long been in dispute over oil resources and revenue sharing. But the apparent collapse of the peshmerga within a day also led to bitter accusations between rival Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan¬†and¬†Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, highlighting factionalism that has plagued¬†the Kurdish camp.

US ‘not taking sides’

US¬†President Donald Trump said on Monday that the¬†US was not taking sides in the conflict. “We don’t like the fact that they’re clashing. We’re not¬†taking sides,” Trump told reporters at the White House.

“We’ve had for many years a very good relationship with the¬†Kurds as you know and we’ve also been on the side of Iraq,” he
said.

Kurdish government representative in Washington, Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, said the US had already helped isolate the Kurds by publicly calling for them to postpone the September 25 referendum on independence that staretd the current dispute with Baghdad.

“With every step (Washington) emboldened Baghdad, Iran and¬†Turkey … each one of them thinking: ‘Well, so the Kurds are on
their own, we can do whatever we like’,” she told the news agency Reuters.

 

Watch video02:09

Independence for Kurds in Iraq? Baghdad says ‘no’

ls, cw/rt/jbh (Reuters, AFP, AP)

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Catalan crisis: President Carles Puigdemont calls for independence talks with Spain

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont has told the regional parliament that Catalonia should declare independence, but suspend the effects of the referendum to facilitate dialogue with Madrid.

Watch video00:38

Puigdemont calls for dialogue with Spain

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont told the regional parliament on Tuesday that Catalonia had won the right to secede from Spain, but would first seek talks with Madrid.

He and other regional officials later signed a document declaring¬†the region’s independence. It was unclear at the time of writing whether the document had any legal basis, but a regional government spokesman told news agency AFP that the Puigdemont immediately suspended the declaration after it was signed.

“We call on all states and international organisations to recognize the Catalan republic as an independent and sovereign state. We call on the Catalan government to take all necessary measures to make possible and fully effective this declaration of independence and the measures contained in the transition law that founds the republic,” the document said, according to news agency Reuters.

Puigdemont’s main points in the speech:

РCatalan independence had won in a parliamentary election and had now won a referendum. The region had now won the right to become an independent state.

РThe standoff between Barcelona and Madrid was now a European issue. The relationship between the two government no longer works and both sides had a responsibility to de-escalate the situation.

РThe Catalan government was not making any threats or insults and believes that the only way forward is democracy and peace. Catalonia was always willing to talk.

РThe independence referendum took place on October 1 under very difficult circumstances. Spanish police did not want to just take ballot boxes, but strike fear into voters. 770,000 votes could not be counted because of the crackdown.

– Madrid’s aggressive behavior was an attempt to re-centralize power in Spain.

РCatalan citizens were neither mad nor criminals and had nothing against Spain.

Carles Puigdemont gives a speech at the Catalan regional parliament in Barcelona Carles Puigdemont wants a negotiated independence from Spain

Reaction from Madrid

The Spanish government rejected what it called an “tacit” declaration of independenc by Catalonia.

“It’s unacceptable to make a tacit declaration of independence to then suspend it in an explicit manner,” a central government spokesman told news agency AFP.

Read more: Full reactions to the Puigdemont speech

How the day unfolded

Puigdemont met with his cabinet earlier on Tuesday to discuss next steps in a tense standoff with the central Spanish government in Madrid, which has opposed the regional government’s drive toward secession.

Spanish government spokesman, Inigo Mendez de Vigo, warned Puigedemont against declaring independence.

“We call on Puigdemont not to do anything irreversible, not to pursue a path of no return and not to make any unilateral independence declaration,” he said.

EU Council President Donald Tusk also cautioned against such a move, saying a declaration of independence would make “dialogue impossible” between Barcelona and Madrid.

Puigdemont was scheduled to address the regional parliament at 6 p.m. (1600 UTC), but his speech was delayed by an hour.

Read more: Catalan independence Рwhat you need to know

A disputed referendum

National leaders in Madrid and regional leaders in Barcelona have been locked in a standoff since Catalonia held an independence referendum on October 1.

The poll,¬†which Spanish courts and Madrid had declared illegal, ended with 90 percent of voters opting for secession. While turnout was only 43 percent, Puigdemont said afterwards that “the citizens of Catalonia have won the right to an independent state in the form of a republic.”

Images of Spanish police seizing ballots and roughing up voters in Barcelona led to 700,000 people to join a general strike in Catalonia last Tuesday to protest police violence.

Armed Catalan police guard the Catalan parliament ahead of Puigdemont's speechArmed Catalan police guard the Catalan parliament ahead of Puigdemont’s speech

Spain’s opposition

Spain’s interior minister later¬†apologized for Madrid’s actions, but Spanish authorities remained steadfast in denying the legitimacy of the referendum.

Spanish King Felipe has said Catalan authorities¬†had been “irresponsible”¬†in holding the vote and that he was committed to Spain’s “unity and permanence.”

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy said on Sunday he would not rule out suspending Catalonia’s autonomous status if it claimed independence. The central government could take the unprecedented move to invoke article 155 of the Spanish constitution to take over the running of an autonomous region.

Catalonia isolated and under pressure

Puigdemont had repeatedly called on the EU to mediate talks between Barcelona and Madrid following the referendum, a demand Spanish authorities and the EU have refused to accept.

Businesses have also pressured Catalan leaders to defuse tensions with many declaring they will relocate to other parts of Spain. The Madrid stock market has also struggled as international investors have dumped Spanish shares.

Read more: Catalonia independence: Secessionists start to feel the squeeze

Watch video01:22

Winemakers worry about Catalan independence

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Catalan independence: Spain rejects calls for mediation by Catalan President Carles Puigdemont

Catalan independence: Spain rejects calls for mediation by Catalan President Carles Puigdemont
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy asked Carles Puigdemont to abandon the independence drive as a prerequisite to talks. The Catalan parliament is expected to unilaterally declare independence from Spain next week.
Catalan leader Puigdemont
Spain on Wednesday turned down calls by Catalan President Carles Puigdemont for mediation to find a way out of the violent political crisis sparked off by the region’s controversial referendum for independence on Sunday that ended with a rash of violence that left hundreds injured.
“If Mr. Puigdemont wants to talk or negotiate, or wants to send mediators, he knows perfectly well what he must do first: Return to the path of the law,” Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s office said in a statement.
Rajoy was responding to a call for mediation by Puigdemont made earlier during a televised address.
“This moment calls for mediation. We have received various offers in the last hours and we will receive more,” Puigdemont said. “But we have never received a positive response from the state.”
Puigdemont criticized Spain’s King Felipe VI who on Tuesday lashed out at “irresponsible behavior” of the Catalan leaders. The Catalan leader accused the king of ignoring the Catalans by calling on them to give up their bid for independence. The king’s address did not mention those injured during the vote.
“The king has adopted the (national) government’s position and policies which have been disastrous with regard to Catalonia,” Puigdemont said. “He is deliberately ignoring millions of Catalans.”
Read more: Catalan separatist movement driven by more than just economics
Watch video00:24
Catalan president criticizing Spain’s King Felipe
Independence declaration imminent
Without specifically mentioning plans for an independence declaration, Puigdemont added: “I am sure that in the next few days we will show the best of our country when the institutions of Catalonia will have to apply the results of the referendum‚ĶToday we are closer than yesterday to our historic wish.”
Catalonia is expected to declare independence as early as Monday, when a special parliamentary session has been called to evaluate the results of the October 1 vote and discuss the plan for secession.
Mireia Boya, a Catalan lawmaker from the pro-independence Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) said it would be “a plenary to proclaim the republic” of independent Catalonia.
According to the Catalan government, 90 percent of the people voted for independence in Sunday’s referendum, which was declared illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court and was marred by police violence. But turnout was only about 43 percent as Catalans who favor remaining part of Spain mainly boycotted the ballot.
Read more: Catalonia to South Sudan: A world of separatist movements
Two police officers drag a protester off another policeman on the ground (Getty Images/D. Ramos)
CATALONIA VOTES ON INDEPENDENCE – IN PICTURES
Police ‘forced’ to use violence
Security forces used batons and fired rubber bullets in an attempt to disperse the crowds. Many were injured. “We were forced to do what we did not wish to do,” said Spanish government delegate to Catalonia, Enric Millo. “Puigdemont and his team are solely responsible” for the violence, he added.

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No takers for mediation call
European leaders have so far sided with Spain and have called on both sides to talk with each other.
European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said on Wednesday there was a “general consensus that regional government of Catalonia has chosen to ignore the law when organizing the referendum.”
During an emergency session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, leaders from the two biggest party groups warned Catalan leaders not to forge ahead with independence.
Germany said on Wednesday that it hoped tensions between Madrid and Catalonia would soon calm down, but emphasized the conflict was an internal Spanish matter.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said that Merkel wasn’t seeking to mediate the dispute between Madrid and Catalonia’s regional government in Barcelona.
“Chancellor Merkel is not pursuing a mediation mission. It is an internal matter for Spain,” he said.
ap/sms (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)
Watch video01:10
Pique to carry on for Spain despite Catalonia backing
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Catalan president criticizing Spain’s King Felipe
Pique to carry on for Spain despite Catalonia backing
Date 04.10.2017
Related Subjects Spain, Catalonia
Keywords Catalonia, Spain, referendum, Catalonia independence, Carles Puigdemont, Mariano Rajoy

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy asked Carles Puigdemont to abandon the independence drive as a prerequisite to talks. The Catalan parliament is expected to unilaterally declare independence from Spain next week.

Catalan leader Puigdemont

Spain on Wednesday turned down calls by Catalan President Carles Puigdemont for mediation to find a way out of the violent political crisis sparked off by the region’s¬†controversial referendum for independence¬†on Sunday that ended with a rash of violence that left hundreds injured.

“If Mr. Puigdemont wants to talk or negotiate, or wants to send mediators, he knows perfectly well what he must do first: Return to the path of the law,” Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s office said in a statement.

Rajoy was responding to a call for mediation by Puigdemont made earlier during a televised address.

“This moment calls for mediation. We have received various offers in the last hours and we will receive more,” Puigdemont said. “But we have never received a positive response from the state.”

Puigdemont criticized Spain’s King Felipe VI who on Tuesday¬†lashed out at “irresponsible behavior” of the Catalan leaders.¬†The Catalan leader accused the king of ignoring the Catalans by calling on them to give up their bid for independence. The king’s address did not mention those injured during the vote.

“The king has adopted the (national) government’s position and policies which have been disastrous with regard to Catalonia,” Puigdemont said. “He is deliberately ignoring millions of Catalans.”

Read more: Catalan separatist movement driven by more than just economics

Watch video00:24

Catalan president criticizing Spain’s King Felipe

Independence declaration imminent

Without specifically mentioning plans for an independence declaration, Puigdemont added: “I am sure that in the next few days we will show the best of our country when the institutions of Catalonia will have to apply the results of the referendum‚ĶToday we are closer than yesterday to our historic wish.”

Catalonia is expected to declare independence as early as Monday, when a special parliamentary session has been called to evaluate the results of the October 1 vote and discuss the plan for secession.

Mireia Boya, a Catalan lawmaker from the pro-independence Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) said it would be “a plenary to proclaim the republic” of independent Catalonia.

According to the Catalan government,¬†90 percent of the people voted for independence in Sunday’s referendum, which was declared illegal by Spain’s Constitutional Court and was marred by police violence. But turnout was only about 43 percent as Catalans who favor remaining part of Spain mainly boycotted the ballot.

Read more: Catalonia to South Sudan: A world of separatist movements

No takers for mediation call

European leaders have so far sided with Spain and have called on both sides to talk with each other.

European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans¬†said on Wednesday there was a “general consensus that regional government of Catalonia has chosen to ignore the law when organizing the referendum.”

During an emergency session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday, leaders from the two biggest party groups warned Catalan leaders not to forge ahead with independence.

Germany said on Wednesday that it hoped tensions between Madrid and Catalonia would soon calm down, but emphasized the conflict was an internal Spanish matter.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said that Merkel wasn’t seeking to mediate the dispute between Madrid and Catalonia’s regional government in Barcelona.

“Chancellor Merkel is not pursuing a mediation mission. It is an internal matter for Spain,” he said.

ap/sms (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)

Watch video01:10

Pique to carry on for Spain despite Catalonia backing

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Iraq imposes flight ban on Kurdish airports in response to independence referendum

An overwhelming majority of Iraqi Kurds voted for independence in Monday’s referendum. But the Iraqi central government in Baghdad is cracking down on Kurdish leaders in a bid to force them to annul that decision.

Irak Erbil International Airport in irakische Kurdistan (picture-alliance/dpa/Sputnik/V. Sergeev)

An international flight ban enacted by the central Iraqi government against cities in Iraq’s northern Kurdish region came into effect Friday evening amid rising tensions following Monday’s¬†controversial vote for Kurdish independence.

The ban took effect at 6 p.m. local time (1600 UTC) and covers all international flights to¬†Iraqi Kurdistan’s capital city, Irbil, and its second-largest city, Sulaimaniya. Domestic flights will continue as normal, the Iraqi ministry of transport said today.

Iraqi prime minister Haider al-AbadiIraqi prime minister al-Abadi had warned that Iraq would impose the ban if Kurdish leaders did not hand over control of local airports to Iraqi authorities

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had announced on Wednesday that his government would institute the ban within three days if leaders from the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) did not hand over control of local airports to Iraqi authorities.

The KRG refused to meet that demand and has criticized Baghdad for pursuing “unlawful” measures that amount to “collective punishment.”

“The Irbil and Sulaimaniya airports belong to Kurdistan,” KRG Transport Minister Mawlood Bawa Murad said Wednesday. “The demand of the Iraqi government to hand over airports is inappropriate and incorrect.”

Read more: Iraq warns Kurds as they claim victory in independence vote

KRG leader Massud Barzani had¬†called on the central government to join negotiations about Kurdistan’s future after more than 90 percent of Kurdish voters opted for secession on Monday. Baghdad should “not to close the door to dialogue because it is dialogue that will solve problems,” Barzani said Tuesday.

Most regional and several international carriers have said they will halt flights to the region. Well-known airlines Egypt Air, Qatar Airways, Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa, and Austrian Airlines have all announced flight cancellations.

Speaker of the IKRG Independent High Election and Referendum Commission Hindirin Mohammed declares Kurdish independence referendum results.The Kurdish electoral commission said over 90 percent of voters opted for independence in Monday’s referendum.

No oil, few friends

The KRG has found itself increasingly isolated as Baghdad and other neighboring countries with large Kurdish populations have pressed for the referendum result to be annulled.

Turkey said Thursday that it would start dealing exclusively with Baghdad on oil sales. The KRG could lose up to 80 percent of revenue if Turkey decides to halt imports of Iraqi oil via a pipeline that runs through Iraqi Kurdistan.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim has said however that Ankara would only institute targeted oil sanctions against individuals responsible for holding the referendum to avoid impacting civilians in the region. He did not give further details on how the sanctions would spare civilians.

Turkey is home to the largest Kurdish population in the region and Ankara fears that Monday’s vote may bolster Turkish Kurds’ calls for independence. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan¬†has warned¬†that any move toward independence would risk an “ethnic war.”

Read more: Opinion: Kurds find few friends in independence referendum

Both Turkey and Baghdad have signaled a willingness to intervene militarily in the KRG if Kurdish leaders do not back down.

Infografik Karte Kurdische Siedlungsgebiete ENG

On Wednesday, the Iraqi parliament asked Prime Minister al-Abadi to use the Iraqi army to retake the oil fields in Kirkuk, an area that the KRG has only controlled since 2014, but that it included in the independence referendum.

The prime minister has so far held off sending troops into the area. However,¬†the Iraqi military has conducted joint military drills with Turkey along the Iraqi Kurdistan border and Baghdad has said it also sent a delegation to Iran, which also opposes Kurdish independence, “to coordinate military efforts.”

Turkey and Iran have also reportedly conducted joint military exercises along their respective borders with the KRG.

The US, the European Union, and the United Nations have all criticized the referendum, saying it risks destabilizing an already volatile region.

Read more:¬†The Middle East’s complex Kurdish landscape

amp/kms (AP, Reuters, dpa, AFP)

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Kurdish independence vote sparks backlash

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Opinion: Kurds find few friends in independence referendum

The Kurds have every right to declare independence. However, the referendum only makes the situation in the Middle East that much more volatile. All sides need to stand down, writes Matthias von Hein.

Kurdish independence referendum poster (picture-alliance/dpa/D. Vinogradov)

There is an expression that the mountains are the Kurds’ only friends. Their recent referendum on independence,¬†in which the Kurds overwhelmingly voted yes, seems to have pitted them against a world that has never done much for them. Israel has been the only country to support their independence. Elsewhere, the move has been met with concern and criticism.

Those closest to Kurdistan¬†have been the most blatantly threatening. From the north, Turkey has sent tanks to the border. From the east, Iran has sent troops. To the south, Iraq’s central government has mobilized its own forces and Shiite militias. It seems that the region is determined to maintain the borders created by colonial France and England after the First World War, which divided up the crumbling Ottoman Empire without regard to local population differences.

A stateless nation

Back then the Kurds came away empty handed, despite promises to the contrary. Self-governance is a cornerstone of international law; it is enshrined in the UN Charter. However, for the estimated 40 million Kurds ‚Äď the largest group of people without a state to call its own ‚Äď those are just empty words. It is no wonder that Kurds hold little regard for¬†the territorial integrity of Iraq. They have been oppressed there for decades, often driven out and murdered by the thousands with chemical weapons.

von Hein Matthias Kommentarbild AppDW’s Matthias von Hein

It is a good time for the Kurds, historically speaking: They have won the world’s praise for their front-line fight against the barbaric “Islamic State” ‚Äď and have been outfitted with modern weapons to that end. Iraq’s central government is weak. Turkey is divided following last year’s failed coup and has become the target of Western ire. Syria’s opinion with relation to the Kurds has little impact in the region these days. Their referendum is a reflection of their own strengths and¬†desire for independence¬†as much as it is the crisis in Iraq and chaos in the wider region.

Nonetheless, it is possible that Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, has overplayed his hand. He pushed for the referendum largely for domestic reasons: To strengthen his own position and that of his party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Barzani rules like a dictator and has lacked democratic legitimacy for years, which has made him a controversial figure in Kurdistan. It is possible he underestimated his people’s desire for independence as much as he has regional opposition.

Independence not guaranteed

To prevent the regional powder keg from exploding, all those involved should note that the referendum is not legally binding. The Kurdish regional government has said that the referendum result would not lead to automatic independence. Barzani could rebrand the vote as a mere opinion poll. In return, Baghdad, Ankara and Tehran should quickly tone down their rhetoric and pull back their forces. The more the referendum is understood as a non-binding survey, the better.

The truth is that the Kurdistan Region already has all the trappings of independence: The Kurds have their own administration, military, textbooks and control over their borders. For the moment, de-escalation may take precedence over true independence and the Kurds’ right to self-determination. At some point, however, the Kurdish question will emerge again, whenever peace in Syria is seriously pursued. So long as that question remains unanswered, there can be no peace for the wider region.

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What are Venezuela’s proposed constitutional changes?

Venezuela has been in the grip of mass protests against President Nicolas Maduro’s plans to create a “constituent assembly.” Ahead of the Sunday vote, DW looks at the beleaguered president’s constitutional proposals.

Watch video00:39

Venezuela moves ahead with election despite violence

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s push for a special assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution has provoked international criticism and anger from the South American nation’s opposition groups. More than 100 people have died in anti-government protests since Maduro announced his plans in May.

Maduro, however, is bent on going ahead with creating a “constituent assembly” to “achieve the peace needed by the republic, defeat the fascist coup and let the sovereign people impose peace, harmony and true national dialogue.”

The Sunday vote will determine whether Maduro succeeds in his plans. The country’s electoral council, which is dominated by Maduro’s supporters, has created a voting system that critics say heavily favors the ruling party.

Watch video01:41

Deadly clashes in Venezuela as crisis deepens

Venezuelan opposition says Maduro could use the new assembly to install an autocratic regime.

Read:¬†Pope Francis calls for ‘diplomatic solution’ to end violence in Venezuela

Proposed constitutional changes

What remains unclear is what constitutional changes the president is seeking. Maduro has only spoken about it in vague terms. But this is what could be in the offing:

– The new assembly is likely to create a peace and justice commission that would ensure those responsible for ongoing protests and political upheaval be dealt with effectively.

– Legislators in the National Assembly, controlled by opposition members, could be stripped of their immunity from prosecution.

– Not only will the National Constituent Assembly rewrite Venezuela’s constitution; it will also have more powers than the National Assembly.

– The next presidential vote is set for next year, but the constituent assembly could postpone it.

– The assembly is certain to continue the socialist policies first installed by Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chavez.

Read: Venezuela police beat journalists, anti-Maduro protesters

Unpopular vote

Only 23 percent of Venezuelans favor the new assembly plans, according to a June survey by polling firm Datanalisis. Nineteen percent said a new constitution would “guarantee peace and stability” in the country.

Earlier this month, more than 7.5 million people had rejected Maduro’s proposals in an unofficial referendum organized by opposition parties.

The United States and the European Union have slammed Maduro’s proposed measures and have threatened to further isolate the socialist regime.

shs/  (AP, Reuters)

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Theresa May’s cult of personality

As the UK heads toward the June 8 snap election, the Conservative Party is relying heavily on Prime Minister Theresa May’s personal popularity. Samira Shackle reports from London.

Schottland - Edinburgh - Theresa May (Getty Images/J. J. Mitchell)

A party political broadcast for the Conservative Party currently being shown on British television barely mentions the party. It features leader Theresa May giving a speech, as inspirational music plays in the background. At the end of the broadcast, large text asks “Theresa May – or Jeremy Corbyn?” The Conservative Party’s emblem is displayed in a much smaller font.

Watch video00:56

May: No illusions about Brexit

This mirrors a wider strategy by the Conservative Party, as Britain heads toward a snap general election on June 8.

Numerous campaign events have been brandished with large banners proclaiming “Theresa May’s Team,” with the Conservative logo barely visible.

Local candidates in marginal seats refer to themselves as “Theresa May’s local candidate.”

Read more: UK Conservatives slip in opinion polls ahead of election

The motivation for this strategy is clear from the polls, which suggest that the Conservatives have the support of around 40 percent of voters, but that 61 percent believe May is the best choice for prime minister, compared with just 23 percent who support Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for the job. This makes May’s popularity rating higher than Margaret Thatcher’s or Tony Blair’s at their peak (48 percent and 52 percent respectively).

“While the sensible remnants of the Labour Party seek to obscure toxic Corbyn during the campaign, the Conservatives are going to astonishing lengths to obscure their own party behind their leader,” says Sophie Gaston, head of international projects at the left-leaning think tank Demos. “The strategy has a clever rationale – the polls show that May leads Corbyn among every demographic, while the Tory party itself will remain perennially toxic for some portions of the electorate.”

Großbritannien Liverpool - Jeremy Corbyn nach Parteisieg (Reuters/P. Nicholls)Many pundits say Corbyn is fighting a losing battle

Strong and stable

Notwithstanding her popularity among voters, in recent weeks¬†May has been mocked in the media for her repetition of the phrase “strong and stable leadership.”

This points to one of May’s weaknesses; she is often characterized as robotic and awkward, and has refused to take part in televised debates with other party leaders ahead of the election.

Read more:¬†Rivals slam May’s plan to dodge televised debates

“She is held to be possibly humorless, rather severe, perhaps unflinching, but that is currently being presented as strength and stability,” says Matthew Cole, lecturer in history at Birmingham University. “At the moment these weaknesses are not seen as terribly important – and not as significant as being unable to lead one’s party, being unrealistic in policy and being inexperienced, which are Corbyn’s perceived weaknesses,” he told DW.

Read more:¬†UK’s Labour shedding traditional voters

Outside political and media spheres, May’s reliance on sound bites does not appear to be damaging. “The message is tiring for us in Westminster, but as the Leave campaign showed during the referendum last year, and Trump demonstrated to great effect, a simple message can hold powerful salience when voters reach the ballot box,” Gaston told DW.

May’s traditionalist image may also be standing her in good stead. “She embodies values and attitudes which a big chunk of the country hold – she’s traditional, socially conservative, has a skepticism toward the EU, immigration, and has a provincial outlook, especially compared to [former Prime Minister David] Cameron and [former Finance Minister George] Osborne. That plays well with large swathes of the country,” says Oliver Patel, research associate at University College London’s European Institute.

Brexit means Brexit

The Conservatives’ manifesto pledges slashing immigration and drastic changes to social care. But until this point, the campaign has been noticeably slim on policy detail. “May has claimed she owns the mandate of the referendum, and that’s what makes her different from any previous prime minister going into an election,” says Cole.

Read more: Reports: British Prime Minister Theresa May plans migration curbs

Symbolbild Gro√übritannien Patriotismus Union Jack Einkaufst√ľte (Reuters/K. Coombs)Even those who voted for the UK to remain in the EU now want the prime minister to get on with it

Although the referendum on leaving the EU was very close, opinion polls indicate that now, a substantial proportion of those who voted Remain want to see the result honored. This means that the Liberal Democrat’s strategy of standing on an anti-Brexit platform is likely to be unsuccessful. “Most people just want to see her get on with it,” says Patel. “The Conservative strategy is not to focus on the two parties but the two leaders – not even on policy, but who do you want in number 10, who do you want negotiating Brexit.”

Of course, encouraging voters to make their decision based primarily on the personality of a leader carries risks –¬†particularly if that person becomes toxic, as was seen in the case of both Thatcher and Blair. But given the weakness of the opposition and the size of the Conservative’s poll lead, this strategy seems likely to be effective in this election at least.

“It is almost impossible to imagine a scenario where the Tories do not win this election – the question is simply how large the prime minister’s mandate will be and whether the damage to Labour will be irreversible,” says Gaston.

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