Posts Tagged ‘independence referendum’

Spanish government begins withdrawal of thousands of police from Catalonia

December 27, 2017

Spain has announced it will begin to pull out police reinforcements sent to Catalonia ahead of the region’s contested October independence vote. As many as 10,000 additional officers are thought to have been deployed.

Spanien Demo gegen Unabhängigkeitspläne in Katalonien (picture alliance/dpa/NurPhoto/X. Bonilla)

The Spanish government on Tuesday announced that it had begun pulling out police reinforcements from Catalonia, almost three months after they were sent to halt an independence referendum that the Constitutional Court had declared illegal.

Spain’s Interior Ministry and the Spanish police union said the withdrawal should be completed by Saturday.

Read more: Opinion: After Catalan elections, it’s back to the drawing board

Madrid deployed thousands of additional officers from Spain’s National Police and Guardia Civil to Catalonia in September, just as the northeastern region was preparing to vote in a contested independence referendum.

The vote on October 1 was subsequently marred by scenes of violence , as police used batons and rubber bullet to try and force voters away from the polling booths. At least 92 people were injured in the clashes, while Catalan authorities claimed at the time that as many as 900 people needed hospital and medical attention on the day of the vote.

Although Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s government never placed an exact figure on the number of additional officers sent to Catalonia, most media estimated it to be between 4,000 and 6,000. However, Spain’s top-selling daily, El Pais, put the figure at around 10,000.

The crackdown prompted Catalan separatists to dub the Spanish police reinforcements as an “occupying force.”

Catalonia still rising separatist wave

Despite the numbers of police and their often brutal interventions, the referendum still saw millions of Catalonians cast their ballot, giving the separatist vote a substantial majority.

The vote, however, led Rajoy to sack Catalan President Carles Puigdemont, dissolve the Barcelona-based government and impose direct rule from Madrid.

Read more: Spain’s King Felipe VI urges Catalan leaders to avoid new confrontation

The prime minister also called for early elections, which took place last week. The separatist parties once again maintained their majority and are expected to form a new government.

dm/jm (AFP, dpa)


New protests in Iraqi Kurdistan as residents seethe at authorities

December 23, 2017


A picture taken on December 20, 2017 shows security forces riding in a vehicle as they chase down demonstrators in a street in the city of Raniya, 130 kilometres north of Sulaymaniyah in the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region, as protests against political corruption raged for a third day despite a clampdown by security forces after five people were killed. (AFP)

SULAIMANIYAH, Iraq: Demonstrators irate at the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan took to the streets for a fifth day Friday, demanding the release of more than 200 protesters detained over violent rallies that have roiled the region.

Furious locals have torched the offices of the autonomous region’s main political parties in a string of towns since Monday as ire boiled over at the calamitous fallout from an independence referendum.
September’s overwhelming vote in favor of breaking away drew stinging reprisals from the central government that have battered Iraqi Kurdistan’s already flagging economy and fired anger over official graft.
“Down with the government of the corrupt, no to corruption!” protesters in the town of Shamshamal, some 70 kilometers (45 miles) south of the region’s second city Sulaimaniyah, chanted.
Protesters gathered in the town of Rania to demand that the “killers have to be brought to justice” after five demonstrators were shot dead there by security forces on Tuesday.
In Sulaimaniyah itself, police shot in the air and fired tear gas to disperse dozens of protesters calling for the release of those detained over the rallies.
Some 200 people have been arrested in the city alone since the protests began, while dozens have been held in other towns, activists from the Goran political party said.
The eruption of anger at the political elite in Kurdistan has caused turmoil for the authorities, with Goran and the Kurdistan Islamic Group party withdrawing from the regional government.
In the wake of September’s independence referendum rejected by the central authorities, Baghdad seized back disputed oil-rich regions from the Kurds in a move that gutted their finances.
Veteran Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani, who pressed ahead with the vote despite international opposition, announced he was standing down in October.
Prime minister Nechirvan Barzani, his nephew, has promised to hold postponed elections in the region in the coming months.

Catalonia crisis: Arrest warrant expected for Carles Puigdemont

November 3, 2017

Spanish judicial sources have told reporters that a European arrest warrant for deposed Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont is imminent. Nine other Catalan leaders have been jailed for their role in an independence push.

Carles Puigdemont (Reuters/Y. Herman)

A Spanish judge is planning to issue an arrest warrant for ousted Catalan leader Carles Puigdemonton Friday, judicial sources have told several media outlets. Nine former members of Catalonia’s separatist government have already been detained.

Puigdemont’s lawyer in Belgium also said the arrest warrant had been prepared, but there has not yet been official confirmation from Spain’s government.

Prosecutors had asked Investigative Magistrate Carmen Lamela to order the immediate detention of Puigdemont and four of his ex-ministers, who ignored court summonses to appear for questioning on Thursday over their role in an independence referendum.

The five fled to Brussels on Monday after unilaterally declaring the region of Catalonia independent from Spain. They are among 20 regional politicians ordered to face charges of rebellion, sedition and embezzlement — crimes that are punishable by up to 30 years in prison under Spanish law.

In a press release issued on Wednesday, the self-proclaimed “legitimate government of Catalonia” said that Puigdemont and his four colleagues would remain in Belgium during the court proceedings in order to denounce “a political trial carried out according to the Spanish government’s directive.”

Catalonian cabinet members arrive at court in MadridDismissed Catalan cabinet members were summoned to Spain’s High Court to testify on charges of rebellion

What has happened so far:

  • Spain’s Catalonia region held an independence referendum on October 1 that was declared illegal by the central government in Madrid
  • Catalonia’s leaders unilaterally declared independence from Spain on October 27
  • Madrid exercised constitutional powers allowing it to take over the running of Catalonia
  • Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy dismissed the Catalan cabinet and dissolved the regional parliament
  • Spanish prosecutors filed rebellion charges against Catalan leaders
  • Carles Puigdemont traveled to Brussels with several ex-cabinet ministers, saying he was seeking “freedom and safety”

Eight leaders jailed without bail

Eight Catalan leaders who did appear in court Thursday, including former Vice President Oriol Junqueras, were sent to prison without bail pending an investigation into the secessionist campaign and a potential trial. Former Business Minister Santi Vila, who stepped down from the cabinet before the independence declaration, was granted bail of 50,000 euros ($58,300).

The judge said the defendants must be remanded in custody because they were a flight risk and might try to destroy evidence.

Lawyers for the nine leaders said the ruling “lacked justification” and was “disproportionate,” adding that they planned to appeal.

Shortly after the decision, Puigdemont said on Twitter that the “legitimate government of Catalonia had been sent to jail for its ideas and for having been faithful to the mandate approved by the parliament of Catalonia.”

Read more:

– Spanish government ‘never been fair’

– ‘Rajoy will not make concessions’

– Opinion: Puigdemont and his disappearing act

Lawyer: Puigdemont could appeal

If an arrest warrant against Puigdemont is announced Friday, he could be detained by Belgian police and subsequently face extradition to Spain. It would also make his participation in a snap Catalonian regional election called by Madrid on December 21 unlikely.

“I can only say that the law will be applied if we receive (the European arrest warrant),” Belgium’s prosecutor told Spain’s EFE news agency.

Puigdemont’s Belgian lawyer says his client will not be seeking asylum in Belgium and intends to cooperate with Belgian authorities, if necessary. The lawyer, Paul Bekaert, told The Associated Press Puigdemont would turn himself in to police if an arrest warrant was ultimately issued.

Later, however, he added that his client would appeal if a Belgian judge approved an extradition.

Kurdish parties opposed to Barzani report attacks on offices overnight — “For now, Kudish independence movement looks dead”

October 30, 2017

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iraqi Kurdish political parties opposed to regional leader Masoud Barzani reported attacks on their offices in several cities overnight, hours after Barzani announced his resignation, brought low by a failed push for independence.

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The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) building is seen after it was burnt overnight, in the town of Zakho, Iraq October 30, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Movement for Change and Gorran said in separate statements several of their offices in the Duhok region, north of the Kurdish capital Erbil, were looted or burnt overnight. No casualties were reported.

The semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq said it had ordered the local police forces, known as Asayish, to stop the attacks.

 Image result for Masoud Barzani, Photos

Barzani, 71, said on Sunday he would give up his position as president on Nov. 1 after an independence referendum he championed in northern Iraq backfired and triggered military and economic retaliation by the Iraqi government.

The veteran guerrilla leader has run Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region since 2005, presiding with a firm hand as the region prospered while the rest of Iraq struggled in civil war. But he but has been brought low in recent weeks by his decision to push the independence vote, and his downfall has exposed deep fractures among the Kurds.

Armed protesters supporting Barzani stormed parliament as it met on Sunday to approve his resignation. Opposition lawmakers who had been barricaded inside managed to leave later, according to their parties.

The PUK, which has been the main rival of Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) for decades, supported his decision to hold the independence referendum, but half-heartedly. The reformist Gorran party opposed the vote, arguing that the timing was poor.

In a televised speech announcing his plan to step down, Barzani said followers of his longterm rival, PUK founder Jalal Talabani who died in early October, had been guilty of “high treason” for handing over the oil city of Kirkuk to Iraqi forces without a fight two weeks ago.

Kurdish fighters known as Peshmerga had held Kirkuk, one of Iraq’s main oil centres, since 2014 when they seized it after government troops fled in the face of an advance by Islamic State.

A man inspects the site of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) building after it was burnt overnight, in the town of Zakho, Iraq October 30, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

Although Kirkuk is outside the borders of the Kurdish autonomous region, Kurds consider it the heart of their homeland. This month, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi ordered his forces to recapture it and all other disputed territory in retaliation after Barzani staged the independence referendum, which Baghdad considers illegal.

The Iraqi body in charge of supervising media in Baghdad issued on Sunday a ban on two major Kurdish TV channels close to Barzani’s KDP: Rudaw and Kurdistan 24.

The Baghdad-based Communication and Media Commission accused the two networks of “inciting violence and hatred.”

“This is an assault on freedom of press and expression,” replied Erbil-based Kurdistan 24’s management in a letter to the International Federation of Journalists.

Rudaw accused Iranian-backed Iraqi paramilitaries who are operating alongside government forces on Monday of killing a Kurdish journalist, Arkan Sharif, in the region of Kirkuk.

While the Iraqi Kurds have mostly shown outward unity since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, they have a deep history of conflict between Barzani’s KDP and Talabani’s PUK, which fought each other in a civil war in the 1990s.

The KDP is based mostly around Erbil, the regional capital, while the PUK draws its support mostly from Suleimaniya, the other main city in the region.

The two political parties run separate units of Peshmerga, their former underground guerrilla armies that have since become the official security forces of the Kurdish autonomous region.

After Saddam’s fall, Barzani ran the Kurdish autonomous region while his rival Talabani served as ceremonial president of all of Iraq in Baghdad from 2005-2014.

Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli; editing by Paul Tait and Peter Graff


Kurdish leader Barzani’s dream of independence led to downfall

ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) – Masoud Barzani, who spent decades leading the long-oppressed Kurds, confirmed on Sunday he was stepping down as president of the Kurdistan Regional Government after his drive for independence backfired.

 Image result for Masoud Barzani, Photos

FILE PHOTO – Iraqi Kurdish president Masoud Barzani 

After decades of struggle, critics say Barzani made one of his biggest mistakes by pushing hard for a Sept. 25 referendum.

Kurds voted overwhelmingly for independence, but won little sympathy outside their region. As well as the Iraqi government, Turkey and Iran threatened to take tough action against any move towards secession, fearing it would encourage their own restive Kurdish populations to follow suit.

The United States and other Western powers joined the chorus of opposition to the vote. The Baghdad government rejected it as illegal and sent troops to seize the oil city of Kirkuk, which the Kurds regard as the heart of any future homeland.

In just a few hours, the city the Kurds regard as sacred was gone, along with other Kurdish-held territory across the north. Some accused Barzani of having led his people to disaster.

For many years, he had used cunning and patience to help the Kurds survive long years of brutality under Saddam Hussein.

After the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam in 2003, Barzani became a central figure in the drive to create an autonomous Kurdish state in northern Iraq.

Kurdish leaders kept their territory relatively free of the sectarian bloodshed that plagued most of Iraq. Western oil executives flocked to the region seeking deals.

Kurds showed their military capability by joining Iraqi government troops and Iranian-backed paramilitary forces to drive Islamic State militants out of Mosul.

Confident that the time was right for an independent homeland, Barzani pursued the referendum.

It resulted in overwhelming support for secession. But the joy was short-lived as Iraqi government forces and Shi‘ite paramilitaries shattered the Kurds’ dreams with a series of lightning military advances.

Barzani was born in 1946, soon after his legendary father founded a party to fight for the rights of Iraqi Kurds.

Deeply influenced by his father, Mulla Mustafa Barzani, known as the Lion of Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani joined the Kurdish guerrilla forces known as the Peshmerga at the age of 16 and gained fighting experience in the mountains.


The younger Barzani would become familiar with one of the popular themes in Kurdish history – betrayal by regional and Western powers.

Exiled and dying of cancer in a Washington hospital in 1976, Mulla Mustafa lamented that he had ever trusted the United States.

    A year earlier, Mulla Mustafa had been fighting a guerrilla war against Baghdad backed by Iran’s pro-Western shah, but he was left high and dry when then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger brokered a deal that allowed Saddam to crush the Kurds.

During the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Masoud Barzani allied the Kurdistan Democratic Party that he had inherited from his father with Tehran once more. It did not go well. Some 8,000 Barzani tribesmen were rounded up and paraded through Baghdad before being executed. In Saddam’s words: “They went to hell.”

Despite the massacres, and Iraqi chemical attacks, Barzani retained enough of a fighting force to respond to President George Bush’s appeal for an uprising during the 1991 Gulf War.

Taking Bush at his word, the Kurds rose up against Saddam, and Barzani and his Peshmerga – known as “those who face death” – came down from the mountains to join the uprising and capture several cities in the north.

But the victorious allies balked at the prospect of a Kurdish split from Baghdad and did nothing to stop Saddam’s troops and helicopter gunships from crushing the rebellion.

    While more than a million Kurds fled to Turkey and Iran, many dying of hunger and exposure on the way, Barzani stayed to fight on.

He was saved by a U.S. and British no-fly zone established over the north in 1991 which allowed him and his Kurdish rival, Jalal Talabani, to retake the area.

    This was followed by the longest period of Kurdish autonomy in modern history, but it was scarred by civil war between Barzani and Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in the mid-1990s.

    Barzani invited Iraqi government tanks into the region in 1996 to seize the regional capital Erbil, sending not only Talabani, but dozens of CIA personnel and their local employees fleeing before them.

Talabani died barely a week after last month’s referendum.

Barzani’s exit will leave the Kurds lacking direction, with their two main leaders gone.

Editing by Michael Georgy and Giles Elgood

Pro-unity march in heart of ‘independent’ Catalonia

October 29, 2017



© AFP / by Daniel Bosque with Mariette le Roux in Madrid | Bikers joined a pro-unity protest in Barcelona, waving Spanish flags

BARCELONA (AFP) – Pro-unity protesters gathered for a rally in Catalonia’s capital Barcelona on Sunday, two days after regional lawmakers voted to break away from Spain, plunging the country into an unprecedented political crisis.

As protesters gathered for the march, the deputy president of the region’s now-deposed government lashed out against Madrid over what he called a “coup d’etat”.

“The president of the country is and will remain Carles Puigdemont,” his deputy Oriol Junqueras wrote in Catalan newspaper El Punt Avui.

Junqueras used the word “country” to refer to Catalonia, whose lawmakers pushed Spain into uncharted waters Friday with a vote to declare the region independent.

“We cannot recognise the coup d’etat against Catalonia, nor any of the anti-democratic decisions that the PP (Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s ruling Popular Party) is adopting by remote control from Madrid,” Junqueras wrote.

He signed the article as the “vice president of the government of Catalonia”.

– ‘Viva Espana!’ –

The Catalan crisis was triggered by a banned independence referendum on October 1 that was shunned by many, and marred by police violence.

Then on Friday, Catalan lawmakers passed a motion, by 70 votes out of 135 in the secessionist-majority regional parliament, to declare the region of 7.5 million people independent from Spain.

Rajoy responded by deposing the regional government, dissolving its parliament, and calling December 21 elections to replace them.

Deputy Prime Minister Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, was temporarily put in charge of administering the rebel region.

As prosecutors prepared to file charges of rebellion against Puigdemont next week, he too was defiant on Saturday, calling for “democratic opposition” to Madrid’s power grab.

Puigdemont accused the central government of trampling on the will of independence-seeking Catalans with the first curtailment of regional autonomy since Francisco Franco’s brutal 1939-75 dictatorship.

Barcelona readied for Sunday’s anti-independence march under the slogan: “Catalonia is all of us!”

Television footage showed people streaming out of a metro station near the march, draped in Spanish flags.

The rally is due to kick off at noon near where tens of thousands of people celebrated the new “republic” with song, wine and fireworks just two days earlier.

“Viva Espana!” cried Sunday’s protesters, whose chant means “long live Spain”.

Participants at the rally will include representatives of three Catalan opposition parties — including Rajoy’s conservative PP, in what may amount to the start of an election campaign.

An opinion poll published in centre-right newspaper El Mundo Sunday said separatist parties would lose their majority in Catalonia’s regional parliament if elections were held today.

– Divided region –

Later on Sunday, Real Madrid football club will face Girona, Puigdemont’s favourite team, in the Catalan side’s home stadium, in a game that may see some of Spain’s divisions reflected in the stands.

It is the first visit by Real Madrid, Rajoy’s favourite team, to Catalonia since the referendum.

Roughly the size of Belgium, Catalonia accounts for about 16 percent of Spain’s population and attracts more tourists than anywhere else in the country.

It produces about a fifth of Spain’s economic output — equivalent to that of Portugal.

Before the upheaval, Catalonia enjoyed considerable autonomy, with control over education, healthcare and policing.

But while fiercely protective of their language, culture and autonomy, Catalans are divided on independence, according to polls.

Rajoy drew sweeping powers, approved by the senate, under a never-before-used constitutional article designed to rein in rebels among Spain’s 17 semi-autonomous regions.

He used these to axe Puigdemont, his deputy, regional ministers, heads of departments, and the chief of police in a move that angered some Catalans.

Far-left supporters of Puigdemont have threatened “mass civil disobedience” if Rajoy carries out the power grab, but have yet to announce any plans.

In Madrid, several thousand people gathered on the central Plaza Colon Saturday, waving the Spanish flag, and calling for Puigdemont to be jailed.

Spain enjoys the backing of the United States and allies in a secession-wary European Union still reeling from Britain’s decision to leave its fold.

Many fear the economic impact as the standoff drags on, with some 1,700 companies having moved their legal headquarters out of Catalonia so far.


by Daniel Bosque with Mariette le Roux in Madrid

Iran’s—and Russia’s—Influence Is Growing in Iraqi Kurdistan

October 26, 2017

Baghdad’s seizure of oil-rich Kirkuk, aided by Shiite militias close to Tehran, has forced the Kurdish government to freeze its independence-referendum results.

By Jeremy Hodge
The Nation
October 25, 2017

Iraqi Kurds demonstrate at the US consulate in Irbil, the capital of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, 20 October 2017
Iraqi Kurds demonstrated in Irbil last week amid rising tensions with Baghdad. Getty Images

Events in Iraq over the last week or so have cast yet another shadow over US foreign policy in the Middle East, raising doubts about whether President Trump can follow through effectively on his promises to curb Iranian influence in the region. The Iraqi Army’s October 16 takeover of the disputed, oil-rich city of Kirkuk—supplemented by Iran-backed Shiite militias known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF)—has prompted a significant shakeup within the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of northern Iraq. Now Iran’s Kurdish proxies are poised to exert more influence over local politics than at any point in the past 20 years.

Those proxies, in particular the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), have been marginalized within the KRG since 1997, following the conclusion of the Iraqi-Kurdish civil war between the PUK and its rival, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which ended in victory for the latter. Since the end of that war, the KDP has dominated KRG’s parliament, maintained control over the office of the presidency, and cultivated close working relationships with the United States, Turkey, and, some say, Israel.

The events surrounding the fall of Kirkuk have shaken up this balance in a way that will likely strengthen both the PUK and Iran, which as a result will enjoy increased leverage over KRG politics, likely at the expense of both the KDP and the United States. Military and political pressure that Iran’s proxies have exerted on the KDP since October 16 has already produced tangible results: Late on October 24, the KDP-led KRG government announced that it had decided to “freeze” the results of the controversial September 25 KRG independence referendum and engage in “open dialogue” with the Iraqi government in Baghdad. This comes just days after the top figures within the PUK leadership publicly denounced the referendum, warming up to the international and regional position regarding its legality.

A recent multibillion-dollar oil deal between Russia and Kurdish officials could allow Moscow to draw traditional US allies farther out of Washington’s sphere of influence.

Although these developments may be welcomed in Washington—which also opposes the referendum—this can hardly be considered a victory for the United States. American diplomats, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have made their opposition to KRG secession clear to Kurdish politicians for years, to little effect. Rather, it was Iran-backed hard power and diplomacy that produced a change in the KDP’s position, not the United States.

Relations between the KDP and Washington may also sour, in part because of Washington’s failure to provide military, diplomatic, or political support to Kurdish forces in Kirkuk, but also because of the Trump administration’s opposition to the independence referendum.

“When I served in Iraq, our goal was to constantly balance our responsibilities and commitments to both Baghdad and the KRG without appearing as if we favored one or the other,” Robert Ford, former diplomat and US ambassador to Iraq following the Iraq War, told The Nation. “I think now, that’s going to be a lot harder to do.”

A recent multibillion-dollar oil deal between Russia and KDP officials could also allow Moscow to draw traditional US allies farther out of Washington’s sphere of influence.

These events came just days after Trump’s October 13 announcement that the Treasury Department would designate Tehran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a terrorist organization and slap new sanctions on the group. During his speech Trump also threatened that Washington may decide to withdraw unilaterally from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

However, Iran has demonstrated through its actions and those of its proxies that it is either actively countering Trump’s bellicose rhetoric with further escalation on the ground, or that it doesn’t take the president’s threats seriously when carrying out military operations abroad. In recent days, Iranian-backed Shiite militias have actively called for PUK forces to return to Kirkuk. PUK leaders, meanwhile, have openly toyed with the idea of Iraqi-government forces being stationed at local public facilities and institutions within the KRG north of the Green Line, generally recognized internationally since 2003 as the official border between the KRG and the Iraq’s central government.

The takeover of Kirkuk reportedly came after a deal between the PUK and Baghdad was brokered by IRGC Quds Force Gen. Qassem Suleimani.

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All this comes as the KDP has fallen out with its closest regional ally, Turkey, over the independence referendum, even as it suffers from the effects of a protracted financial crisis. Whereas the KDP appears isolated, cash-strapped, and weak, the PUK appears strong, stable, and well integrated with its neighbors. And, far from containing Iran’s influence in the Middle East, over the past week the Trump administration has watched yet another domino begin to wobble before the regional march of the Islamic Republic.


In 2014, in the wake of ISIS’s rapid seizure of much of northern Iraq and the Iraqi Army’s headlong retreat southward, Kurdish peshmerga under the PUK seized Kirkuk. Last week, PUK units withdrew, relinquishing control to PMF and Iraqi Army forces after putting up a brief resistance, which according to the PUK cost the lives of nearly 100 of its soldiers. Reports have claimed that the takeover came after a deal between the PUK and Baghdad was brokered by IRGC Quds Force Gen. Qassem Suleimani. In the past several years, Suleimani has regularly been seen commanding Iranian-backed Afghan, Iraqi, and Lebanese Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria against both ISIS and moderate Syrian rebel groups that are fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

As the narrative goes, Suleimani—who made a public appearance in the PUK-controlled city of Sulaymaniyah earlier this month to visit the grave of Jalal Talabani, former PUK chairman and longtime party patriarch—offered the PUK a series of concessions in exchange for its withdrawal from Kirkuk.

Both Iran and Turkey have taken steps since the September 25 independence referendum to isolate the Kurdistan Regional Government.

Many within Kurdistan, including some within the PUK, have acknowledged the truth behind this claim. “The Talabanis are responsible for the disaster that befell Kirkuk,” said Rewaz Fayaq, chairwoman of the PUK’s bloc in the KRG Parliament. “The Talabani family conducted meetings with Qassem Suleimani in Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk and drafted a plan to deliver the city in exchange for special privileges.” In light of these revelations, Fayaq and others within the PUK have begun to distance themselves from the Talabanis. “This decision was not taken with the support of PUK party ranks, and we don’t support it,” she said.

Despite the media’s portrayal of the loss of Kirkuk as a loss for Kurds, recent reports suggest that PUK forces remain in the area. “The Talabani family dominates the PUK decision-making bodies,” said Michael Knights, a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “They likely knew about the impending Iraqi Army and PMF assault before it occurred, and extracted concessions for their benefit accordingly. Receiving salaries from Baghdad and having their people placed in oil facilities in and around Kirkuk, particularly in those formerly controlled by the KDP, has been a goal of the PUK for years.”

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Iraqi forces advance Monday, October 16, 2017,  to the center of Kirkuk during the operation against Kurdish fighters.

The notion that Baghdad would allow PUK fighters to remain in Kirkuk after its fall was practically confirmed on October 19, when Ala Talabani—a PUK MP in Iraq’s Parliament and niece of Jalal Talabani, and in turn a member of the PUK’s leading decision-making circle—appeared on Iraqi television with Qais al-Khazali, chairman of Iraq’s Shiite Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq PMF militia, which took part in the battle of Kirkuk.

Al-Khazali, who was arrested in 2007 and detained for nearly three years by Western coalition forces for orchestrating the death of US soldiers in Karbala, summarized the meeting held between the two, saying, “We must exert our fullest efforts to stabilize the situation, and to undermine all opportunities and attempts made by those who seek to secede [from Iraq].… That said, we are calling for a number of steps to be taken, among them…a joint administration [for Kirkuk] in which PUK Peshmerga will take part.”

Iraqi forces pass an oil production plant Monday as they head toward Kirkuk.

Other concessions allegedly granted to the PUK include the payment of PUK party cadre salaries out of the central-government budget and assurances that all border crossings and airways between Baghdad, Iran, and PUK-controlled territory in the KRG will remain open for the foreseeable future.

“Keeping transportation routes open is a huge benefit for the PUK, and in light of recent measures taken against KRG as a whole, would be a huge incentive for PUK leaders to reach a compromise with the Iraqi Army and PMF over the status of Kirkuk,” said former ambassador Ford. “The PUK got to live to fight another day, and have sought to protect their interests in the meantime.”

Such promises are significant, as both Iran and Turkey have taken steps since the September 25 referendum to isolate the KRG from neighboring countries, either by shutting off airspace or imposing economic blockades on commerce coming out of the region.

Despite these revelations, both Ala and Bafel Talabani (the latter is Jalal Talabani’s son) and others have denied that there was an explicit agreement to withdraw from Kirkuk in exchange for special rights. They attribute the overnight withdrawal to superior firepower by the Iraqi Army and PMF compared to PUK and KDP forces.

“Our withdrawal from Kirkuk was tactical,” said Wasta Rasul, commander of PUK forces in Kirkuk. “We lost nearly 100 soldiers in the initial hours of fighting, and reached the conclusion that it wasn’t worth risking collateral damage and thousands of PUK lives for a battle we were likely to lose.” This claim is supported by the fact that KDP forces—which have not been accused of reaching a deal with Iran and Baghdad—withdrew from other disputed territories, such as Sinjar, Gwer, and Dibis, under the threat of superior Iraqi Army/PMF firepower.

Nonetheless, in the days after Kirkuk’s fall, both Bafel and Ala Talabani have gone a step further, publicly ingratiating themselves with the regional and international community—in particular Turkey and Iran, both of which possess sizable Kurdish minorities—by openly speaking out against the KDP-led independence referendum, in addition to calling for other concessions to Baghdad that were never previously on the table.

On October 20, Bafel Talabani appeared in an interview on France 24, during which he described the referendum as a “colossal mistake.” Two days earlier, in an interview on Iraqi television, Ala Talabani stated, “I don’t deny that Qassem Suleimani and our neighbor Iran have a hand in much of what goes on in the region. They play a positive role by providing us counsel and advice. Qassem Suleimani gave us the same advice we got from the [Iraqi] Prime Minister [Haider al-Abadi]…which was, ‘Let’s reach an understanding, quit being so stubborn, and forget this idea of a referendum.’” Ala has repeatedly referred to the referendum in other interviews as having been “careless.”

In another interview conducted the same day, Ala went on to support the idea of Iraqi government troops being stationed at Kurdish airports and border crossings between the KRG and territories controlled by Iraq’s central government. Such a statement from a Kurdish official is nearly unprecedented, and would mean accepting the presence of Iraqi government troops north of the 2003 Green Line. If such a suggestion were implemented, it would mark the first instance of Iraqi government troops in the KRG since 1997, when Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards intervened on behalf of the KDP in the Iraqi-Kurdish civil war.

The fact that PUK representatives are calling for Iraqi troops to cross the 2003 Green Line while Iranian-backed Shiite militias are calling for PUK peshmerga to help administer Kirkuk leaves less than a shadow of a doubt as to the current trajectory of regional geopolitics in the KRG. As recently as October 22, US Secretary of State Tillerson publicly called for Iran-backed Shiite militias to leave Iraq, as their job combating ISIS was now over. Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi countered by insisting that the PMF were“patriots” whose efforts were an inspiration and “hope of country and the region.” Two days later, during the prime minister’s weekly press conference to Iraqi media, Abadi furthermore warned Iraqi politicians to “stay away from all foreign agendas,” which many have interpreted as a swipe against Tillerson. Iran, along with its Arab and Kurdish proxies, seems to be gaining ground in northern Iraq.


While the PUK has made gains in and around Kirkuk, the KDP has lost significantly. In mid-October, Iraqi Security Forces took control over the Bai Hassan and Avana Dome oil facilities in and around Kirkuk, which prior to the takeover had been overseen by KDP forces operating through the KAR Group.

These two fields alone produce 280,000 barrels per day and make up 45 percent of the KRG’s oil revenue. On the day of their loss, oil exports sent through the KRG’s Taq Taq pipeline allegedly dropped from 600,000 to 300,000 barrels per day. Meanwhile, the Iraqi government has announced plans to exploit these fields in the future by rerouting oil exports through a second pipeline, operated exclusively by Baghdad, known as the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline. Already on October 18, Iraqi Oil Minister Jamal Luiebi announced that he had reached out to BP to conduct a reservoir assessment of the fields. This pipeline runs from Kirkuk through the Salah a-Din and Ninewah provinces—territory well outside the control of the KRG—before crossing north into Turkish territory via the Fishkhabur border crossing.

Following the expansion of ISIS in 2014, parts of the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline were destroyed by the terror group. As ISIS retreats from northern Iraq, Baghdad can begin making repairs to the pipeline’s infrastructure. All that’s left is for Iraqi forces to retake the Fishkhabur crossing (currently controlled by the KDP), a campaign that PMF forces have already begun. In recent days, the latter have wrested control of several key areas near Fishkhabur from the KDP, including the Sinjar mountain range, where ISIS massacres of Yazidi civilians in August 2014 sparked an international outcry, prompting the United States and other foreign powers to launch their campaign to destroy the terror group. As The Nation went to press, fighting in the area was ongoing.

After several major oil agreements in the past year, Moscow may now be the largest single international investor in Kurdistan.
The KRG was plagued by financial crisis even before the fall of Kirkuk, partly because of the recent sharp drop in oil prices; the loss of that city and its oil fields will undoubtedly plunge the Kurdish region into a much worse recession. Currently, the KRG is indebted to the tune of $20 billion to both domestic and international creditors, and as a result has been able to pay only 25 percent of the salaries of its civil servants. As the PUK secures strategic benefits for itself in the aftermath of the assault on Kirkuk, it will likely be the KDP that continues to bear the brunt of the KRG’s current and future economic crisis.


Despite these short-term setbacks, several key events and trends may work to the KDP’s benefit in the medium to long term. Foremost among these is a deal reached last September between the KDP-affiliated KAR Group and Rosneft, Russia’s majority-state-owned oil company, which is thought to be close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The deal called for Rosneft to invest $1 billion in the KRG’s Taq Taq pipeline to Turkey, in the hopes of raising its export capacity to 1 million barrels per day.

This brings the total amount of pledged Russian investment in the KRG’s petroleum sector to $4 billion since last December, a massive windfall for Erbil, and one that makes Moscow perhaps the largest single international investor in the KRG region. In addition to providing the cash-strapped KRG with a much-needed lifeline, Russia’s involvement in the region is notable in that Moscow is effectively the only regional and international power to remain neutral on the status of the September KRG independence referendum.

Whereas the United States may have angered Kurds with its refusal to endorse the legitimacy of the referendum—which passed with 93 percent of the vote—Russia’s neutral stance may yet earn it the reputation of supporter of Kurdish self-determination, much to Washington’s chagrin. Russia’s position toward the KRG was reinforced on October 23, when Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that Moscow and Rosneft would seek to increase their involvement in the KRG petroleum sector in the near future, adding that Russia “would not abandon the Kurds.” Also on October 24, Russia’s deputy prime minister for the defense industry, Dmitry Rogozin, declared that Moscow intended a “full-scale return” to Iraq—diplomatically, economically, and, potentially, militarily.

Furthermore, the PUK’s ascendancy may yet collapse under its own weight. Though propped up by outside powers, the PUK leadership’s decision to denounce the popular independence referendum has earned it the ire of many—and not only in the Kurdish street but also among its highest party ranks. Kosrat Rasul, PUK member and vice president of the KRG region, referred to the loss of Kirkuk as Kurdistan’s “second Anfal,” a reference to Saddam Hussein’s brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing against Kurds in the late 1980s, which killed an estimated 100,000 civilians. Other PUK leaders, such as former Kirkuk governor Najm al-Din Karim and chairman of the PUK politburo Mala Bakhtiyar, have openly criticized the Talabani family, saying their actions may lead to civil war within Kurdistan.

Ala Talabani herself has acknowledged the split within the party, saying on October 18 about the PUK that “it’s undeniable we’ve become [separated] into two camps…after the death of [Jalal Talabani], there was no longer unity within [the PUK] regarding decision making. That said, a group within the Politburo began making decisions without consulting the remainder of the party leadership…. these are the same people that call us traitors, us being Bafel Talabani, and others.”

Anger toward the PUK leadership over its position on Kirkuk will likely boil over on the Kurdish street as well. A member of the Kurdish security forces, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the situation, hinted that after the fall of Kirkuk PUK militia members began defecting to the KDP and are now helping to prop up the new front lines separating Iraqi Army and PMF units from Kurdish peshmerga. Over the past week, Kurds in Erbil have been protesting in front of the American embassy against Washington’s perceived inaction.

These are all circumstances that the KDP can take advantage of to shore up its position and portray itself as the true defender of the KRG’s interests. Baghdad may have made gains over the past week, but dealing with an angry, unruly Kurdish populace may be more than it can handle. And while Iran and its proxies may also have gained significant ground in and around Kirkuk, their fortunes could soon change too. Whether or not this will play out to America’s interests, however, is anyone’s guess.

Jeremy Hodge

Jeremy Hodge is the senior MENA analyst at Ergo, a global intelligence and advisory firm specializing in due diligence, competitive intelligence, and geopolitical analysis based in New York. Previously, Jeremy has written on developments in Egypt’s post-revolutionary environment for Foreign Affairs, Le Monde diplomatique, Al-Jazeera, and Africa Confidential. He is fluent in Arabic.

Iraqi Kurdistan offers to ‘freeze’ results of independence referendum

October 25, 2017


© Safin Hamed, AFP | Iraqi Kurds take part in a demonstration outside the US consulate in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, on October 21, 2017, to protest the escalating crisis with Baghdad


Latest update : 2017-10-25

Iraqi Kurdistan proposed Wednesday to freeze the results of its independence referendum, which triggered a major crisis with Baghdad.

Iraq has called for the cancellation of the results of the vote as a precondition for all negotiations and in retaliation has seized large areas of territory held by Kurdish forces.

Talk of Civil Disobedience in Catalonia May Be Causing Spain To “Tighten the Screws”

October 24, 2017
© AFP / by Jordi Zamora Barcelo with Mariette le Roux in Madrid | Catalan separatists have warned they may declare unilateral independence from Spain
BARCELONA (AFP) – Spain pressured Catalan separatist leaders to abandon their independence drive Tuesday as radical pro-secessionists prepared plans for a campaign of “mass civil disobedience”.

As Madrid prepared to pass measures by the weekend to remove Catalonia’s leadership, far-left separatists were expected to detail their planned response if the central government moves to take over powers from the regional government.

The worst political crisis in Spain in decades was sparked by a banned October 1 independence referendum deemed illegal by the country’s government and courts.

Based on the outcome, Catalonia’s conservative regional president Carles Puigdemont initially threatened a unilateral declaration of independence. Madrid insisted it would take over the region’s governance, and cash, to prevent that.

Puigdemont could call elections for a new regional parliament to stave off Madrid’s seizure of power.

But a central government minister warned Tuesday that elections might not be enough to prevent Madrid taking over the region.

– Government warning –

As the nation waited to see who will blink first in the constitutional standoff, Spain’s justice minister urged Puigdemont to clarify his stance.

“Mr Puigdemont’s violation of his obligations cannot be resolved merely by calling elections,” Rafael Catala told RNE radio.

This would require “elections and something extra” — which would include ruling out any possibility of unilaterally declaring independence.

The Senate was set to approve a formal mandate Tuesday for a 27-member committee that will examine how best to take over the running of Catalonia.

– ‘Civil disobedience’ –

Meanwhile, the far-left, anti-capitalist Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP), scheduled a press conference in Barcelona to announce its planned reaction if the government goes ahead and executes an article of the constitution designed to rein in the regions.

The CUP will also hold meetings in a dozen cities and towns to plot a way forward.

On Monday, the party accused Madrid of the “biggest assault” on the Catalan people since Francisco Franco’s dictatorship. It said a takeover by Madrid would be met with “massive civil disobedience”.

Franco — who ruled from 1939 until 1975 — suppressed Catalonia’s autonomy, language and culture.

Catalan firefighters, teachers and students have also warned of strikes and protests.

Under the never-before-used Article 155, Madrid could depose the regional government, wrest control from the Catalan police force, replace the heads of its public news outlets, and take over Catalonia’s finances.

Until now, the region controlled its own policing, education and healthcare, but discontent has grown since the 2008 economic crisis, with Catalans demanding more control over their own tax income.

About 90 percent of participants voted for independence in the October 1 referendum, according to Catalonia’s government, the Generalitat.

Only about 43 percent of eligible voters turned out however, with many anti-secessionists staying away.

– Catalonia divided –

The region of 7.5 million people is fiercely protective of its culture, language and autonomy, though polls indicate its inhabitants are deeply divided on whether to break away from Spain.

The Senate committee to be formalised on Tuesday includes representatives of governing, opposition and separatist parties.

It will send a formal notice to Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont to inform him of the measures, and give him an opportunity to respond — possibly at a full session of the Senate to be held on Friday.

He can reply in writing, send a representative, or go to Madrid himself. A Catalan government spokesman said Puigdemont is mulling his options.

“If he responds by reiterating his positions on Catalan independence… unfortunately we cannot but apply the measures foreseen by the government,” said Catala.

The Article 155 measures would come into effect once published in the government gazette on Saturday, effectively ousting Puigdemont and his team.

Catalonia’s separatist parties intend to hold a special session of the regional parliament for Thursday to decide how to respond.


by Jordi Zamora Barcelo with Mariette le Roux in Madrid

Catalonia weighs options as Spain ups the stakes

October 22, 2017

Though Catalans are deeply split on whether to break away from Spain, autonomy remains a sensitive issue in the northeastern region of 7.5 million people


October 22, 2017

AUTONOMY. People shout slogans as they wave Catalan pro-independence 'Estelada' flags during a protest in Barcelona on October 2, 2017. Photo by Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP

AUTONOMY. People shout slogans as they wave Catalan pro-independence ‘Estelada’ flags during a protest in Barcelona on October 2, 2017. Photo by Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP

BARCELONA, Spain – Catalonia’s separatists were planning their response Sunday, October 22, after Spain took drastic steps to stop the region from breaking away by dissolving its separatist government and forcing new elections.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont and his regional executive, who sparked Spain’s worst political crisis in decades by holding a banned independence referendum on October 1, will be stripped of their jobs and their ministries taken over under measures announced Saturday by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

“Yesterday there was a fully-fledged coup against Catalan institutions,” said Catalan government spokesman Jordi Turull.

“What happens now, with everyone in agreement and unity, is that we will announce what we will do and how,” he told Catalunya Radio.

Rajoy has taken Spain into uncharted legal waters by moving to wrest back powers from the semi-autonomous region, which could see Madrid take control of the Catalan police force and replace its public media chiefs.

The move sparked outrage among separatists, with nearly half a million taking to the streets of regional capital Barcelona and Puigdemont declaring Rajoy guilty of “the worst attack on institutions and Catalan people” since the dictatorship of Francisco Franco.

Among other repressive measures, Franco – who ruled from 1939 until 1975 – took Catalonia’s powers away and banned the official use of the Catalan language.

Though Catalans are deeply split on whether to break away from Spain, autonomy remains a sensitive issue in the northeastern region of 7.5 million people, which fiercely defends its language and culture and has previously enjoyed control over its policing, education and healthcare.

Rajoy said he had no choice but to force Puigdemont out as he refuses to drop his threat to declare independence after a referendum that had been declared unconstitutional.

Responding to accusations of a “coup”, Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis retorted: “If there is a coup d’etat, it is one that has been followed by Mr. Puigdemont and his government.”

He told BBC television: “What we are doing is following strictly the provisions of our constitution.”

Spain’s Senate is set to approve the measures by the end of next week. Rajoy’s conservative Popular Party (PP) holds a majority in the upper house, while other major parties also back his efforts to prevent a break-up of the nation.

What now?

In a crisis that has sent jitters through one of Spain’s most important regional economies and rattled the stock markets, Rajoy has ordered fresh elections to be called within 6 months of the Senate hearing, which would see polls held by mid-June at the latest.

Separatist parties of all political stripes, from Puigdemont’s conservatives to the far-left, have dominated the Catalan parliament since the last elections in 2015, holding 72 seats out of 135.

Ahead of a meeting of Catalan parties on Monday, October 23, to set a date and agenda for a crucial session of the regional parliament to debate next steps, Turull insisted on RAC1 radio that elections were “not on the table”.

Political analysts warn Rajoy faces a serious struggle to impose control over the unruly region.

Potential scenarios include Catalan civil servants and police refusing to obey orders from central authorities.

“The basic problem is that you have to govern Catalonia with the active opposition of a large part of the population,” analyst Jose Fernandez-Albertos told AFP.

Asked if Puigdemont will be arrested if he shows up for work, Dastis tried to strike a reassuring tone.

“We are not going to arrest anyone,” he told the BBC, dismissing the idea of the army having to be brought in to enforce order.

But he warned that if Puigdemont’s government keeps trying to give orders, “they will be equal to any group of rebels trying to impose their own arbitrariness on the people of Catalonia.”

Europe leaders back Madrid

National police said two young people had been charged after physically assaulting police at Saturday’s Barcelona protest, which saw some 450,000 separatists flood the streets shouting “freedom” and “independence”.

Puigdemont says 90% backed a split from Spain in the referendum, but turnout was given as 43% as many anti-independence Catalans stayed away.

Polls suggest the wealthy region is evenly split over independence, with separatists saying it pays too much into national coffers but their opponents arguing it is stronger as part of Spain.

Madrid has received vocal backing from European leaders, with EU parliament chief Antonio Tajani stressing Sunday that neighbors would refuse to recognize Catalonia if it unilaterally declared independence.

“It is not by degrading nationhood that we reinforce Europe,” he told Italian newspaper Il Messaggero.

Spain to seek Catalonia autonomy suspension unless leader relents

October 18, 2017


© AFP | Catalonia held a banned independence referendum on October 1, sparking a political crisis in Spain
MADRID (AFP) – Spain will seek to suspend Catalonia’s autonomy unless the region’s leader abandons his push for independence, the country’s deputy prime minister said Wednesday, 24 hours before Madrid’s deadline.

If separatist leader Carles Puigdemont does not provide a satisfactory response by 0800 GMT Thursday, “Mr Puigdemont will provoke the application of article 155 of the constitution,” Soraya Saenz de Santamaria told parliament.

This provision of the constitution — which has never been used before — would open the way for Madrid to impose direct rule over the semi-autonomous region.

Triggering it could represent a drastic escalation of Spain’s worst political crisis in decades which was sparked when Catalonia held a banned independence referendum on October 1.

Puigdemont declared independence following the poll which he says resulted in a 90 percent “yes” vote, though turnout was only 43 percent as many supporters of Spanish unity stayed away in a region that is deeply divided on the issue.

But the Catalan leader said he was “suspending” independence to allow time for talks with the government — a prospect Madrid has rejected, leaving the country in limbo.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has given Puigdemont until Thursday to come up with a definitive answer on the independence question, or face the consequences.

“All I ask of Mr Puigdemont is that he acts with good sense,” Rajoy told parliament on Wednesday.

The premier would need Senate approval to trigger article 155, but his conservative Popular Party has a majority there.

The move could ultimately allow Madrid to suspend the regional government and eventually trigger new elections for Catalonia, but such a move risks inflaming tensions in the region even further.