State Department: U.S. Does Not Recognize Kurdistan Independence Vote

ERBIL, IRAQ - SEPTEMBER 22: Supporters wave flags and chant slogans inside the Erbil Stadium while waiting to hear Kurdish President Masoud Barzani speak during a rally for the upcoming referendum for independence of Kurdistan on September 22, 2017 in Erbil, Iraq. The Kurdish Regional government is preparing to hold …
Chris McGrath/Getty
Washington, DC

The State Department made clear Friday that the United States will not recognize Iraqi Kurdistan’s referendum on independence held Monday to separate from Iraq.

“The United States does not recognize the Kurdistan Regional Government’s unilateral referendum held on Monday. The vote and the results lack legitimacy and we continue to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wrote in a press release.

After urging calm, Tillerson emphasized that American interests in the region require fighting the Islamic State (ISIS). He wrote, “The fight against ISIS/Daesh is not over, and extremist groups are seeking to exploit instability and discord. We urge our Iraqi partners to remain focused on defeating ISIS/Daesh.”

Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional government took the step of holding a vote on independence at the start of this week, against the explicit wishes of Iraq’s national government. While the referendum saw a high turnout and a decisive win for Kurdish independence, its legitimacy was in question before the vote ever took place. Not only is Baghdad displeased by the development, but Iran and Turkey, two countries with sizable Kurdish minorities with long-running ambitions for autonomy of their own, issued statements disparaging the vote. Only Israel made overtures suggesting it might recognize an independent Kurdistan in what is now Iraq’s northern territories.

Earlier in the week, the administration appeared less willing to come down conclusively on either side of the dispute. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert was critical of the vote during her Thursday briefing but avoided sweeping declarations as to its legitmacy . In response to a reporter’s suggestion that the Statement Department had been “silent” on the topic, she said:

“Keeping silent” would be a mischaracterization of the U.S. position on this. We have been very clear from the beginning that we oppose that referendum because we thought it would be destabilizing. As we see some of these reports in the media, unfortunately, that has been borne out. This is destabilizing.

Like Tillerson, Ms. Nauert emphasized that her department’s focus is to keep the coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS) together. “We want Kurdistan – we want the Kurds, we want Iraq, the central government of Iraq – to remain focused on the fight against ISIS. We have concerns that this will take the focus off the fight against ISIS,” she said.

Despite Baghdad’s scramble to exert pressure on what it considers its wayward northern province, Nauert confirmed that the United States would maintain warm relations with Iraqi Kurdistan and that the United States was prepared to work with both to ensure a stable, unified Iraq and final victory over ISIS. She told reporters:

If we are asked to assist in any way – look, we’re friends with the Kurds; we are friends with the central government of Iraq. We have fought – our American forces have fought side by side with your folks, okay? We want to have a stable, unified Iraq. We want that more than anything. We want ISIS out of Iraq. We want to see them decimated and to never wreak terror on your communities again.

Tillerson’s Friday release clarified the American position and tried to cool tempers on both sides. “We urge calm and an end to vocal recriminations and threats of reciprocal actions,” he wrote. “We urge Iraqi Kurdish authorities to respect the constitutionally-mandated role of the central government and we call upon the central government to reject threats or even allusion to possible use of force.”

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