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Iraq MPs vote to oust Kirkuk governor days before referendum

Iraq MPs vote to oust Kirkuk governor days before referendum
Governor Najmaddin Kareem speaks during an interview with Reuters in Kirkuk. Photo: Reuters
Published: 7:45 PM, September 14, 2017
Updated: 8:00 AM, September 15, 2017

BAGHDAD/KIRKUK - Iraq's parliament on Thursday voted to remove the governor of Kirkuk, a staunch supporter of Kurdish independence, just days before a referendum on whether to split from Baghdad.

The Kurdish presidency said leaders would study a western plan to delay the referendum and ease tensions. But hours later, President Massoud Barzani himself was quoted by local media as telling a rally the vote would go ahead on Sept. 25 as planned.

Kirkuk Governor Najmaddin Kareem said he had no intention of following Baghdad's order, issued at the behest of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, and stepping down.

"I will stay in office," he told Reuters. "The referendum will go on as planned...The prime minister does not have the power to ask parliament to remove me."

Iraqi lawmakers authorized Abadi this week to "take all measures" to preserve national unity before the independence referendum, which they have voted to reject.

Baghdad and Iraq's neighbors are opposed to the vote.

Iraqi lawmakers say it will consolidate Kurdish control over several disputed areas, including oil-rich Kirkuk.

The province is claimed by both the central government in Baghdad and Barzani's semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.

Kareem is a vocal supporter of the referendum and campaigned for the vote to be held in Kirkuk.

Kurds have long claimed Kirkuk and its huge oil reserves. They regard the city, just outside their Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, as their historical capital. But the ethnically mixed city also has Arab and Turkmen populations.

The referendum has become a potential flashpoint in the region, with Western powers worrying it could ignite conflict with the central government in Baghdad and divert attention from the war against Islamic State militants.

Turkey has the region's largest Kurdish population and fears a "Yes" vote could fuel separatism in its southeast where Kurdish militants have waged an insurgency for three decades in which more than 40,000 people have been killed.

Iran and Syria also oppose the vote, fearing it could fan separatism among their own Kurdish populations.

"PUBLIC BACKLASH"

Kareem has long riled the federal government. Last spring, Kirkuk's governorate voted to raise the Kurdish flag over state buildings, despite Baghdad's insistence that only Iraq's national flag should fly in the multi-ethnic city.

"He is an elected governor of the council of Kirkuk," said Hoshyar Zebari, a close adviser to President Barzani. "That is the only body that can remove him."

"The escalating tactics this week by the Iraqis are causing a large public backlash, and will strengthen the Kurdish referendum enormously," Zebari said.

A delegation from the United States, the U.N. and Britain met with Barzani on Thursday, to discuss a possible delay to the referendum - what Kurdish Head of Foreign Relations Falah Mustafa, called "an alternative path."

The president was "studying" the alternatives put forth, according to a statement issued by the Kurdish presidency.

At a pro-referendum rally in Zakho hours later however, Barzani told those gathered that they would vote on Sept. 25 as planned, according to Kurdish TV media organization Rudaw.

Kurdish MPs in Iraq's parliament boycotted Thursday's vote, which produced a majority for the governor's removal, lawmaker Husham al-Suhail told Reuters.

Asked whether parliament had the right to dismiss Kareem, Suhail referred to an article in Iraq's constitution which parliament used as the legal basis for the vote.

The article states that a governor of one of Iraq's 19 provinces can be dismissed for one of four reasons, including whether public funds have been wasted or negligence.

Suhail gave no details about what Kareem was accused of.

"I don't even know what the accusations are against me," Governor Kareem told Reuters.

"This is unlawful ... I have the support of the government council, I have the support of the people, we are here and we will continue," he said. REUTERS