Iraq MPs vote to sack Kirkuk governor over Kurdish referendum

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A man show his support for the Kurdish independence referendum in Zakho, Iraq (14 September 2017)Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East

The Iraqi parliament has voted to sack the governor of Kirkuk province amid rising tension ahead of a planned referendum on Kurdish independence.

The Arab-led central government in Baghdad strongly opposes efforts by the autonomous Kurdistan Region to secede.

It is unhappy that Kirkuk's council opted to take part in the referendum on 25 September and asked MPs to dismiss its governor, Najm al-Din Karim.

Senior Kurdish officials insisted the parliament had no right to do so.

Mr Karim himself promised to ignore Thursday's vote and stay in office, telling Reuters news agency: "The referendum will go on as planned."

His office said only the provincial council could remove the governor, who is a member of the political bureau of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

On Tuesday, the Iraqi parliament rejected the referendum as unconstitutional and authorised the prime minister to "take all measures" to preserve national unity.

Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East, but they have never obtained a permanent nation state. In Iraq, where they make up an estimated 15% to 20% of the population of 37 million, Kurds faced decades of brutal repression before acquiring autonomy following the 1991 Gulf War.

Kirkuk is an oil-rich province claimed by both the Kurds and the central government. It thought to have a Kurdish majority, but its provincial capital has large Arab and Turkmen populations.

Over the past three years, Kurdish Peshmerga forces have taken control of Kirkuk city and other disputed areas while driving out the jihadist group Islamic State (IS).

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group in the Middle East

Three months ago, top officials and political parties in the Kurdistan Regional Government agreed to hold an advisory referendum on independence.

Voting will take place in the three provinces that officially make up the region - Dahuk, Irbil and Sulaimaniya - and "areas of Kurdistan outside the region's administration", including Kirkuk, Makhmour, Khanaqin and Sinjar.

Kurdish officials have said that an expected "yes" vote will not trigger an automatic declaration of independence, but rather strengthen their hand in lengthy negotiations on separation with the central government.

Media caption,

Massoud Barzani spoke to the BBC

Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani defended the decision to hold the referendum in Kirkuk in a recent interview with the BBC.

"We don't say that Kirkuk only belongs to Kurds," he said. "Kirkuk should be a symbol of coexistence for all ethnicities. If the people of Kirkuk vote 'no' in this referendum we will respect their vote... but we don't accept that anyone can prevent us from holding a referendum there."

He also warned that "if any group wants to change the reality of Kirkuk using force, they should expect that every single Kurd will be ready to fight over it".