President of the northern Iraqi Kurdish region Masoud al-Barzani has rejected international, regional and Iraqi pressure to cancel a planned independence referendum, stressing that the Kurdish people are prepared to pay the price for their freedom.
This comes as the Turkish National Security Council called Barzani to stop the referendum.
Barzani concluded his tour to support the independence referendum in the Kurdistan capital, Erbil, on Friday afternoon.
Addressing a rally of thousands of people, Barzani said that Erbil is open to have serious and friendly talks with Baghdad after the September 25 vote, but it is now too late to postpone it.
He stressed that Kurdistan is not a threat to its neighbors, as has been demonstrated over the past 25 years, but warned the Peshmerga would not allow anyone to feel “comfortable” and invade Kurdistan.
He directed the Peshmerga to be prepared to “pay whatever cost” necessary to protect Kurdistan, because they will not allow the region to fall to the enemy.
The president called upon all Kurdish people to head to the polls on Monday and decide their future, saying the road ahead is difficult but worth it.
“Either we live a life of subordination, or a free life,” Barzani told the rally adding that if they must die to achieve freedom, they will “die with honor."
Barzani said that the “free union” described in the Iraqi constitution has failed and that the path ahead is for the Iraqi and Kurdish nations to part.
Describing how Iraqi officials did not respect partnership in the new Iraq established after the 2003 US-led invasion, Barzani declared, “We won’t go back to a failed experience," reiterating: “We can no longer live with Baghdad."
Addressing a UN Security Council statement asking Kurdistan to postpone the vote out of fear it may affect the war on ISIS and the return of one million or displaced Iraqis who are currently in the Kurdistan Region, Barzani said Kurdistan’s coordination with Iraqi and global forces will continue.
“We will be more insistent in the fight against ISIS and will fight even stronger,” he said.
He also said the displaced Iraqis are the guests of Kurdistan.
Addressing Turkey and Iran, Barzani said: “You have punished us for 100 years. Are you not tired yet?”
He explained that it was too late to call off the vote despite global pressure, adding that he would not postpone the referendum to please foreign capitals.
Meanwhile, negotiations are still taking place to persuade Barzani on postponing any referendum, according to officials close to the discussions.
"Nothing is definitive yet. Discussions are continuing to try to offer him serious guarantees that will convince him to change his mind," said one official who did not wish to be identified.
On the Iranian front, AFP quoted a top official as saying that Major General Qassem Soleimani of the Revolutionary Guards' al-Quds Force returned to Kurdistan and met several officials.
The source said that Soleimani was in Sulaimaniyyah and will head to Erbil later.
"It's his last visit before the referendum to advise Kurdish officials that Iran is seriously hostile to it and warn them to call it off," the source said, adding that Soleimani promised Kurdish officials during his last visit that Iran is pressuring the Iraqi leadership so it accepts Kurdish demands and solves the issues of the budget, Peshmerga salaries and disputed areas.
In 2014, Baghdad decided to suspend payments to Barzani's Kurdish regional government of 17 percent of Iraq's national budget, worth about $12 billion, because of a dispute over oil exports.
Wages, along with those of Kurdish peshmerga fighters, made up 80 percent of the region's budget revenues.
On Thursday, the UN Security Council warned that the referendum was potentially destabilizing, urging warring parties to dialogue and compromise to address differences between the Iraqi government and the regional authorities.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi rejected the independence referendum under any form, even non-binding.
At a press conference in Baghdad, Abadi said that the poll was "rejected, whether today or in the future.”
Barzani also rejected an initiative from Iraqi President Fuad Massum, a Kurd, for negotiations.
In a document seen by AFP, Massum suggested starting UN-backed talks towards a deal with Baghdad.
An official of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Tuz Khurmatu, of Salaheddine, Atef Annajar said he will not allow the poll.
"We're ready for a fight to the death," said, adding however that "the leadership is trying to calm the situation."
Also, US presidential envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS Brett McGurk said on Friday that a referendum on Kurdish independence in northern Iraq “carries a lot of risks", according to Reuters.
McGurk told reporters: “The (Kurdish) referendum just carries an awful lot of risks and that’s not something the United States can control. In terms of the consequences of the referendum it’s not something that we can fully control, (it) just carries a lot of risks.”
Meanwhile in Russia, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told his Iraqi counterpart Ibrahim al-Jaafari that Moscow supported Iraq’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
“The Russian side confirmed its constant support for the unity, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Iraq,” the ministry said in a statement.
Following his return from the 72nd UN General Assembly, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan held back-to-back meetings of Turkey’s cabinet and National Security Council during which the Kurdish referendum was discussed.
On Saturday, Turkish parliament will also convene to discuss the response to the referendum.
The council called on Barzani to stop the referendum. It warned the Kurdish government against holding a referendum on independence, saying such a move would create grave results.
In a statement released following a meeting at the presidential complex in Ankara, the council said that Turkey reserves all options arising from bilateral and international agreements if the referendum is held on September 25.
''It is strongly emphasized that this attempted Kurdish referendum is a grave mistake which directly threatens the security of Turkey and the peace, security and stability of the region as well as Iraq's territorial unity and territorial integrity,” the statement said.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the referendum was a matter of national security for the country and Ankara would never accept a change of status in Iraq or Syria.
“An action that will change the status in Syria and Iraq is an unacceptable result for Turkey, and we will do what is necessary,” Yildirim said.