Kurdish Authorities Plan Referendum On Independence From Iraq

NPR's Kelly McEvers talks to Middle East correspondent Leila Fadel about the rift between Iraqi Kurds and Iraq's central government in Baghdad.

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers. In Iraq relations between the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and Kurdish leaders in the North have soured. That's ever since Sunni extremist militants seized huge portions of the country, including nearly the entire border with the Kurdish North. Kurds have pulled out of the central government all together and regional authorities are making plans to hold a referendum on independence from Iraq. At the same time violence continues throughout the country, just yesterday there were reports that gunmen in Baghdad raided and apartment building, and killed at least 29 people, including 25 women. NPR's Leila Fadel is in Erbil, that's a Kurdish city in northern Iraq. And Leila what were the details of this incident in Baghdad overnight?

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: We spoke to a security official that said it was a Shia militia that raided the building and basically shot all of these people overnight. And from what we understand the militia has been going after women that they deemed to be prostitutes. And it's sort of a reminder of the past in 2006 and 2007 when Shia militias ran rampant in the streets killing Sunni men and anybody they deemed to be a sinner or not with them.

MCEVERS: So how is this connected to the recent advances of Sunni extremist forces?

FADEL: Well, these militias were reactivated basically in Baghdad in order to battle the Sunni extremists, so it's really becoming quite a sectarian war, Shia militias against Sunni extremist militants, and that's really how these militias are back on the streets, running freely, people with guns and a lot of residents saying we don't know who is who.

MCEVERS: Now the violence in Iraq has also increased political tensions, I mean, what can you tell us about this rift between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurds in the North and where you are?

FADEL: Well, Kurds have long aspired to have their own independent state and after the Islamic State, which is this extremist Sunni group that has declared a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria, took swaths of the country. Kurds went into disputed territory abandoned by the Iraqi Army and took it because they believe it’s part of their ultimate state. That includes the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, oil fields and this has caused much hostility between the Shia led government in Baghdad and the Kurdish authorities up hear. Maliki instead of asking for help from the Kurdish authorities to fight extremism has accused the Kurds of hosting terrorists and enemies of the state inside their borders and the Kurds reacted saying, well then we're not going to participate in your government, pulling their ministers and saying that Maliki should get out. Baghdad cut the budget to Kurdistan prior to all of this happening and now is stopping cargo flights and there's really no longer any connection between the central government and the Kurdish authorizes up here.

MCEVERS: Wow, so does this mean Iraq is breaking apart? I mean, does it look like the Kurds will end up with their dream after all? Their own independent country?

FADEL: Yeah, I think we're watching Iraq splintering and the thing I hear most in the Kurdish North is that Iraq today will never be Iraq pre-Mosul, meaning pre-last month. When the Islamic State came into Iraq and took Mosul, took Ninewa Province and other Sunni areas. They're saying after this seizure they can't trust the central government, they have to think about themselves and Maliki's actions are pushing them further towards an independent state rather than towards the central government.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Leila Fadel in the Kurdish North, in the city of Erbil. Leila thanks so much.

FADEL: Thank you.

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