The Cable

Iraqi President Cancels U.S. Trip Over Kurdish Referendum

The moves comes as both Prime Minister Abadi and the Iraqi Supreme Court rebuked the Kurdish government.

TOPSHOT - Iraqi Kurds fly Kurdish flags during an event to urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on September 16, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED        (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - Iraqi Kurds fly Kurdish flags during an event to urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on September 16, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED (Photo credit should read SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images)

Iraqi President Fuad Masum canceled his trip to the United States in order to address the upcoming Kurdish independence referendum, according to an email sent out from a representative for his office.

Masum was scheduled to speak to the U.N. General Assembly this week in New York, but the impending vote “threatened the stability of Iraq,” the message noted. The president decided to remain in Iraq to jump start an initiative to resolve the crisis.  

The Iraqi Embassy in Washington, D.C. confirmed that Masum had withdrawn, but had no other comment on the change.

The president’s last-minute cancelation underscores the impending sense of crisis around the Sept. 25 vote. On the same day, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi also formally demanded the suspension of the referendum, and the Iraqi Supreme Court ordered that the poll be postponed until questions over its legality could be addressed.

The court said the vote should be suspended “until it examines the complaints it has received over this plebiscite being unconstitutional,” the court said, according to Agence France Presse.

A court spokesperson also said it had “received several complaints” from members of parliament who had called on the court to intervene. It is unlikely, however, that these moves will have much of an effect on voting or the Kurdish Regional Government’s decisionmaking.

While the referendum is not necessarily legally binding, Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish autonomous region, hopes that a strong show of support will strengthen the Kurds’ hand in future negotiations with Baghdad.

Adding to the flurry of activity, a Kurdish delegation is expected in Baghdad on Tuesday for more talks, and British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon is set to meet with Barzani in Erbil late Monday.

“I will be in Erbil to tell Massoud Barzani that we do not support the Kurdish referendum,” Fallon said at a press conference in Baghdad before leaving for the north.

The United States, United Kingdom, and most other states involved in the American-led anti-Islamic State coalition, as well as Turkey and Iran, have come out forcefully against the referendum. Those countries are reportedly backing an as-yet-unannounced “alternative” plan for immediate negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil — in exchange the Kurdish government’s halting the referendum.

The United States has long maintained a so-called “One Iraq” policy, arguing that a unified country is the best means of preserving stability. In a recent trip to Baghdad, Defense Secretary James Mattis said that the vote would distract from the primary mission of defeating the Islamic State.

Turkey and Iran in turn fear that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would only fuel irredentist claims within their own borders.

Photo credit: PEDRO PARDO/AFP/Getty Images

Rhys Dubin is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Before coming to FP, he worked for The Daily Star in Beirut covering defense, security, and Lebanese politics. His previous work and research includes time spent in Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, and Tunisia.

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