Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region will hold a historic referendum on statehood in September, its presidency said Wednesday, despite opposition to independence from Baghdad and possibly beyond.
The decision to set the date for September 25 was made at a meeting attended by Kurdish leader Massud Barzani and representatives of the region's political parties, the presidency said in a statement.
"It will be on that day when the people of the Kurdistan region, as well as those living in the disputed areas, will cast their votes on whether they accept independence," it declared.
Often described as the world's largest stateless people after being denied their own country in the wake of World War I, Kurds are spread between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey.
The referendum sets the stage for what may be Iraq's first major crisis after the end of the operation to recapture Mosul from jihadists, which temporarily united rival Iraqi federal and Kurdish forces that will still be deployed in close proximity in the north.
Iraqi Kurds largely support the idea of an independent state, but a yes vote would only be the start of a contentious project that would face major internal and external challenges.
The region is made up of three provinces that are run by an autonomous regional government and protected by their own security services, providing the basis for a potential state.
But there are major political and economic obstacles to Iraqi Kurdish independence.
The presidency statement said in Kurdish the referendum would include "areas of Kurdistan outside the administration of the region", which were termed "disputed areas" in English.
This refers to swathes of northern territory that are claimed by both Kurdistan and Baghdad, including the key oil-rich
province of Kirkuk.
Opposition in Baghdad to Iraqi Kurdistan becoming independent would become even greater if the region tried to take
disputed territory along with it.
Iraqi Kurdistan, like the rest of the country, depends almost entirely on revenue from crude sales to provide government funds.
Kurdistan exports most of its oil via a pipeline leading to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, but also overland through Turkey by
Potential external opposition
Potential opposition from Turkey could thus pose a major economic as well as political challenge to Iraqi Kurdish
Turkey has a large Kurdish minority with which the government has been engaged in a multi-decade armed conflict, and Ankara would almost certainly fear that Iraqi Kurdish independence could fuel increased calls for a similar move within its territory.
Iran and Syria -- which also have large Kurdish populations -- may have similar concerns.
But due to how Iraqi Kurdistan exports oil, Turkey potentially has both an effective veto over independence in general, and a ready means to apply huge pressure to the fledgling state's economy if it did split from Iraq.
Given the poor state of relations between Ankara and Baghdad, Iraq is likely to oppose part of its territory being turned into a state that Turkey could easily influence.
Internally, Iraqi Kurdistan has been hit hard by low oil prices to the point that it has stopped paying some government employees for extended periods.
And while the concept of Kurdish independence has broad appeal, Iraqi Kurds are deeply divided politically, which could lead to paralysis in a new state.
The regional presidency's statement said that "the political parties... agreed to resolve some of the outstanding political and economic issues prior to the date of the referendum".
Nechirvan Barzani, the region's prime minister and its leader Massud's nephew, had previously said the Kurds would address the issue of independence with Baghdad after the conclusion of the operation to retake Mosul from the Islamic State group.
Both Iraqi Kurdish and federal forces have taken part in the Mosul operation, which gave a fleeting common purpose to various rival factions in Iraq, but which is now nearing its end.
The referendum could raise tensions in the Mosul area -- which includes disputed territory -- at a time when both federal and Kurdish forces are deployed close to each other.
This is especially the case west of the city, where territory recaptured by pro-government paramilitary fighters abuts areas held by Kurdish forces, with whom they have clashed elsewhere.
Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region will hold a historic referendum on statehood in September, its?presidency said?Wednesday