WHAT’S THE STORY?

THE president of Iraqi Kurdistan has warned Baghdad to respect the will of its people ahead of a historic independence vote.

An advisory referendum will be held in two weeks, taking in not only the three regions officially included within the self-governing area, but also others outwith this territory.

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This includes oil-rich Kirkuk and other sites captured from Daesh during three years of fighting.

However, Shia militias have rejected the inclusion of Kirkuk in a new fledgling state, while Baghdad has called the referendum unconstitutional.

However, Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan and head of the Kurdish Democratic Party, has indicated that he is ready to set the borders of a new independent country – even if Baghdad does not agree.

WHO IS MASOUD BARZANI?

A WORLD traveller who is part of a wealthy family, the 71-year-old joined the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters at the age of 16.

He served in the Iraqi Governing Council following the invasion of Iraq in 2003 before becoming head of the Parliament of Iraqi Kurdistan two years later.

He has been honoured by Italy for promoting peace and religious tolerance and was praised by Pope Benedict XVI for aiding Christians.

He won the first direct election to the parliament in 2009 and his presidency was extended after the eight-year term expired four years ago.

WHY HAS THE REFERENDUM BEEN CALLED?

THE Kurdish minority makes up around 20 per cent of Iraq’s population and suffered years of oppression by ruling Arab-led governments before establishing its autonomy, with around 182,000 people murdered by the ruling Baath Party in one push in the late 1980s.

Barzani referred to that campaign as “genocidal” in an official statement on Sunday which recalled a “series of injustices” perpetrated on his people, including “bombardment by chemical weapons”.

The Kurdish community also has a notable presence in Turkey, Syria and Iran and has been instrumental in the fight against Daesh.

The four-country split is the result of the creation of new states on the demise of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War.

DOES THE VOTE RISK FRESH VIOLENCE?

SHIA militias are entirely opposed to the inclusion of multi-ethnic Kirkuk in an independent Kurdistan and authorities in Baghdad oppose constitutional chance entirely.

In an interview with the BBC, Barzani said he would respect the wishes of Kirkuk if it votes No, but moves to prevent a vote there were not legitimate.

He went on: “We don’t want war. If they are just threatening us verbally, just let them do it. But if they want to go further and execute their threats, well in that case we face a difficult situation.

On regional stability, Barzani said: “When have we ever had stability and security that we should be concerned about losing it? When was Iraq so united that we should be worried about breaking its unity?

“Those who are saying this are just looking for excuses to stop us.”

WHAT HAPPENS ON THE OUTCOME OF THE VOTE?

BARZANI’S government seeks to use a Yes vote to bolster its case in negotiations with Baghdad.

On Kirkuk, he says he wants the city to remain “a symbol of coexistence for all ethnicities”, but that “every single Kurd will be ready to fight” if any group seeks to “change the reality” there by force.

Meanwhile, work to delineate new borders is expected to take place.

On Sunday, Barzani pledged that the referendum will “deepen” the “brotherhood” between the peoples of his region and the country at large and create “strong foundations” upon which to build new relations and end discord.

He told the BBC: “This is the first time in history that people in Kurdistan will freely decide their future. After that we will start talks with Baghdad, to reach an agreement over borders, water and oil.

“We will take these steps but if they don’t accept them, that is another matter.”

Adding that it is “too late” to stop calls for separation from Iraq, he went on: “We were hoping the constitution would unite us, but it didn’t happen. So many rules were neglected. Now it is right to seek independence.”