Iraq’s Kurds say ‘No Turning Back’ on Independence Vote

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Iraq’s Kurds said on Friday a referendum on independence will go ahead despite warnings internationally that a vote in favor of secession could trigger conflict with Baghdad at a time when the fight against Islamic State is not yet won.

The Kurds have played a major role in the eight-month-old U.S.-backed campaign to defeat the hardline Sunni insurgents in the Nineveh province around their de-facto capital Mosul.

Baghdad’s Shi’ite-led government has rejected any move by the mostly Sunni Muslim Kurds to press unilaterally for independence, insisting that any decision about the future of the country should involve all its other parts.

But Hoshiyar Zebari, a former Iraqi foreign and finance minister and now a senior adviser to Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani, said the decision to hold the vote on Sept. 25 was irreversible.

“We crossed the Rubicon with that decision, there is no going back,” he told Reuters in a telephone interview.

However, the expected “yes” vote would simply strengthen the Kurds’ hand in talks with Baghdad rather than leading automatically to a break from Iraq, nor would an independent Kurdistan annex the oil-rich region of Kirkuk and three other

disputed regions in Kurdish-controlled territory, he said.

“You will hear people saying we are for Iraq’s unity, territorial integrity, we want dialogue between Baghdad and Erbil, we understand all this,” he said.

“A referendum is a democratic process, no democratic country can oppose having a referendum; we are not talking about independence, we are talking about the referendum.”

The KRG’s announcement on Wednesday sparked concern in the United States and Germany, two of the region’s most important partners in the fight against Islamic State, which still controls a small part of Iraq’s northern city of Mosul as well as swathes of territory in Iraq and Syria.

Neighboring Iran, Turkey and Syria all oppose secession, fearing separatism will spread to their own Kurdish populations.

Turkey’s foreign ministry called the plan a “terrible mistake” on Friday and said that Iraq’s territorial integrity and political unity was a fundamental principle for Ankara.

Iraq has been led by Shi’ites since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, by the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. The country’s majority Shi’ite community mainly lives in the south while the Kurds and Sunni Arabs inhabit two corners of the north. The centre around Baghdad is mixed.

The Kurds have their own armed force, the Peshmerga, which in 2014 prevented Islamic State from capturing Kirkuk after the Iraqi army fled in the face of the militants.

They are effectively running the region, also claimed by Turkmen and Arabs. Hardline Iran-backed Iraqi Shi’ite militias have threatened to expel the Kurds by force from this region and three other disputed areas � Sinjar, Makhmour and Khanaqin.

The Sinjar region is populated by Yazidis, the followers of an ancient religion who speak a Kurdish language and the group most persecuted by Islamic State. Makhmour is south of the Kurdish capital Erbil and Khanaqin is near the border with Iran.

Zebari said the vote will only be held in these disputed territories if local elected councils want to join the process.

Source: Voice of America

DC Roundup: Trump Criticizes Comey, Mixed Message on Qatar, US Infrastructure Plan

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Developments in Washington, D.C., on Friday include President Donald Trump saying former FBI Director James Comey wasn’t truthful to Senate panel, releasing his infrastructure plan, as well as the White House sending mixed messages on Qatar relations.

Trump Willing to Answer Questions of Special Counsel About Comey Conversations — Asked on Friday if he is willing to give sworn testimony about conversations with the former Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey, President Donald Trump answered “100 percent,” but then immediately added: “I didn’t say under oath.” The president made it clear, however, he is willing to answer questions from Robert Mueller, another former FBI director, who now heads a special investigation looking into Russian influence on U.S. politics.

Trump to Reporters: Comey Statements Under Oath Weren’t True — Trump told reporters Friday that former FBI Director Comey’s testimony under oath before Congress on Thursday contained statements that weren’t true. Trump took questions from reporters in the Rose Garden outside the White House, in his first question-and-answer session with the media since May 18. In answer to a reporter’s question, the president denied he had asked for Comey’s pledge of loyalty in a private meeting earlier this year.

Comey’s Secret Release of Trump Memo Sparks Partisan Debate — When Comey revealed that he orchestrated a disclosure of damaging details about his conversations with Trump, he demonstrated his savvy use of media and his skills as a Washington operator. He also kicked up a hornet’s nest of questions about the legal and ethical implications of the move.

Source: Trump Legal Team to File Complaint Over Comey Memos — Trump’s personal lawyer plans to file a complaint early next week about former FBI Director Comey’s disclosure of conversations with the president, a person close to the legal team said on Friday.

Trump Doubles Down on Qatar, Even as Tillerson Urges Calm in Gulf Crisis — President Donald Trump on Friday doubled down on his criticism of Qatar, the tiny Gulf country involved in a spiraling diplomatic crisis with its Arab neighbors. “The nation of Qatar, unfortunately, has historically been a funder of terrorism at a very high level,” Trump said at a Rose Garden news conference. Trump’s comments came minutes after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for calm and an ease to the blockade imposed against Qatar by its neighbors.

Arab Powers Draw Up Qatari Blacklist; Turkey to Send Troops as Gulf Crisis Deepens — Arab states that have isolated Qatar tightened their squeeze on Friday by putting dozens of figures with links to the country on terrorism blacklists, while Qatar’s ally Turkey rushed to its side with plans to send troops, warships and planes. The developments intensified a confrontation between tiny-but-wealthy Qatar and a group of Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt that accuse it of fomenting instability. The dispute has created a major diplomatic test for the United States, which is a close ally of the countries on both sides.

Trump Tweets Vindication After Former FBI Chief’s Senate Testimony — Trump took to Twitter Friday to claim “total and complete vindication,” one day after fired FBI director Comey told lawmakers that Trump was not a target in the bureau’s investigation into Russia.

White House Official Confirms Discussions on S. Korean Missile Defense — A White House official has confirmed to VOA that Trump, the secretary of state and the secretary of defense discussed South Korea’s suspension of deployment of a U.S. anti-ballistic-missile defense system in South Korea. South Korea announced Wednesday that it would delay the installation of the remaining components of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system while it was assessing the system’s environmental impact.

Government Agency Says Trump’s Social Media Director Broke Law — The U.S. Office of Special Counsel said Friday that the White House social media director broke the law when he used his Twitter account for campaign purposes. The office said Dan Scavino, one of Trump’s longest-serving aides, violated the Hatch Act, which prohibits most federal employees from using their government positions to try to influence elections. It said in a letter that it had issued a warning to Scavino.

Trump Says He’ll Make US Infrastructure ‘Envy of The World’ — Trump says that, thanks to him, U.S. infrastructure will “once again be the envy of the world.” Trump is visiting the Department of Transportation’s headquarters to highlight his goal of curbing regulations on infrastructure projects.

Trump Targets Immigrants Who Got Deportation Reprieves From Obama — The Trump administration has moved to reopen the cases of hundreds of illegal immigrants who had been given a reprieve from deportation, according to government data and court documents reviewed by Reuters and interviews with immigration lawyers.

ICE Shutters Detention Alternative for Asylum-seekers — The Trump administration is shutting down the least restrictive alternative to detention available to asylum-seekers who have entered the U.S. illegally, The Associated Press has learned. Immigration activists consider the move a callous insult to migrants fleeing traumatic violence and poverty � nearly all the program’s participants are Central American mothers and children � by a White House that has prioritized deportations that break up families over assimilating refugees.

Iran Leaders Accuse US, Saudis of Supporting Attacks in Tehran — Iranian leaders on Friday accused the United States and Saudi Arabia of supporting the Islamic State-claimed dual attacks that killed 17 people in Tehran this week, as thousands of Iranians attended a funeral ceremony for the victims. The country’s Supreme Leader said the attacks will add to the hatred that Iranians harbor toward the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

Republican Senator Calls White House Information Shutout ‘Nonsense’ — An already contentious move by Republican President Trump to block opposition Democratic lawmakers from getting information about his administration received its most scathing criticism yet Friday � from one of the most powerful Republican members of the U.S. Senate. Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley of Iowa, in a more than 2,100-word letter to the White House, asked Trump to rescind unprecedented guidance that told executive agencies they do not have to honor requests for information from lawmakers in the minority party, currently the Democrats. This week in hearings all over Capitol Hill, members of both parties have criticized the information block. Democrats have posited that the Trump administration is trying to hide mistakes, problems or wrongdoing from them.

US Aims to Trim its UN Peacekeeping Bill After Trump’s Calls to Slash — The United States wants to cut $1 billion from the total United Nations peacekeeping budget for the year from July 1 to shave over 10 percent off Washington’s share of the bill following calls by Trump for U.S. funding to be slashed.

US Commerce Chief Seen Imposing Mexico Sugar Deal Over Industry Objections — U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is likely to impose a new sugar trade deal with Mexico even if final revisions to it fail to win support from the U.S. industry, trade lawyers and experts say.

Source: Voice of America

UN: Cyprus Peace Talks to Resume in Geneva on June 28

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Peace talks on divided Cyprus are to resume in Geneva on June 28, the United Nations said Friday, ending a stalemate on procedure that had threatened to derail two years of negotiations.Talks between Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish …

Middle East Crisis: Pakistan walks a delicate terrain

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KARACHI, Pakistan

Pakistan finds itself at between a hard and rock place over a simmering Middle East crisis that has seen the blockade and severing of ties with Qatar by several Arab states, including Muslim-heavyweight Saudi Arabia on terrorism charges, according to local experts.

The only nuclear Muslim state has indicated that it will remain neutral in the crisis, however if the diplomatic tensions further simmer and turn into a regional conflict, it will be very hard for Islamabad to maintain its neutrality, experts say.

Recently, five Arab countries — Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Yemen — cut ties with Qatar, accusing Doha of supporting terrorism. Qatar denied the accusations, calling the move “unjustified”.

The two powerful regional countries -Turkey and Iran- have promised Qatar food supplies and sending troops.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry spokesman Nafees Zakaria told reporters this week that his country was concerned over escalating tensions in the Middle East but declined to endorse one side or another.

Islamabad, however, said it would continue to import Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) from Qatar under a 15-year long agreement the two sides inked in 2015.

Pakistan is walking a delicate terrain compared to any other Muslim country due to nature of its economic and strategic relations with Qatar and Saudi Arabia- with Saudi Arabia even deeper-, Talat Masood, an Islamabad-based security analyst told Anadolu Agency.

Both countries are Pakistan’s important economic and strategic partners, therefore, if the crisis deepens and turns into a regional conflict (of which chances are very dim), we will be in a very difficult situation to maintain our neutrality, he said.

Ikram Sehgal, a Karachi-based defense and security analyst says Turkey’s supporting Qatar has further complicated the issue for Pakistan.

It’s not only Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar only. Now, Pakistan’s time-tested friend Turkey is also involved in the crisis �in one way or the other- making it difficult for Pakistan to take side of one or another, Sehgal, editor of the country’s reputed Pakistan defense Journal, told Anadolu Agency.

Pakistan’s neutral policy is the best policy in the current circumstances Sehgal said referring to a resolution adopted by Pakistan’s parliament urging the countries involved in the crisis to resolve their differences through dialogue.

The resolution also urged Pakistani government to help mediate in the crisis, which could turn out to be disastrous for the regional security and stability.

Pakistan, in 2015, managed to resist pressure to wade into Yemen conflict following a parliamentary vote barring the country from joining the Saudi-led war despite Riyadh’s demand.

-Pakistan’s Stakes

Pakistan’s relationship with the Gulf states are mainly based on economics. Huge amounts of remittances sent by expatriate Pakistanis in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and other Gulf states have a significant impact on the country’s economy.

Saudi Arabia and UAE jointly host over 3 million Pakistanis, whereas Qatar, a smaller Gulf state, is home to only 115,000 Pakistanis.

Saudi Arabia which alone hosts 1.9 million Pakistanis, tops the list of countries with highest remittances to Pakistan- over $4.5 billion annually- followed by the UAE with over $3.47 billion, according to State Bank of Pakistan.

Qatar contributes only $30 million annually to Pakistan’s economy in the form of remittances.

Also, Saudi Arabia and the UAE are Pakistan’s largest regional trading partners, which exported goods and services, mainly oil, to the tune of over $7 billion to Pakistan in the current fiscal year. Islamabad’s exports to UAE and Saudi Arabia stood at $852 million and $300 million in the current fiscal year.

Whereas, Pakistan exported goods worth $42.6 million to Qatar and imported goods and services of $864 million from Doha in the current fiscal.

On the diplomatic front, the royal families of Saudi Arabia and Qatar have had close ties with Pakistani rulers. In 2000, the then Saudi King Shah Abdullah bin Abel Aziz had brokered a deal between Pakistan’s then military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf and the ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, under which the latter was allowed to live in exile in Jeddah for 8 years.

Sharif, who is serving for the third time as premier, is currently depending heavily on the testimony of former Qatari prime minister Hamad Bin Jasim Bin Jaber Al Thani, as part of his defense in an ongoing investigation against him in Panama papers scandal.

-Turkey’s Role

Analysts say the ongoing Middle East crisis will not last for a longer period due to a number of strategic and economic compulsions, including Turkey’s support to Qatar.

Turkey’s wise move (to send troops to Qatar) has diminished the chances of turning the crisis into an armed conflict, Gen. Masood said.

He noted that Riyadh was already occupied with Yemen conflict, and would not be in a position to open a new front with Turkey and Tehran.

Also, he added, the huge presence of the United States in Qatar, including U.S. Central Command’s most important overseas airbase, would not allow Riyadh to go for any military action against Doha.

According to my assessment, this boycott- diplomatic or economic- won’t sustain for a longer period. Saudi Arabia does not supply foods and other items to Qatari people alone but to its biggest ally- the United States forces- based in Doha, he opined.

Moreover, he added, Turkey and Tehran’s offer for food supplies and use of their air space would not let the boycott hit Qatar hugely.

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Source: Anadolu Agency

Turkish PM warns Qatar issue may turn to global problem

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ISTANBULTurkish prime minister said Saturday that Qatar crisis could turn into a global problem if the tension goes up.”A new problem area that may be created here [in Qatar] would not be limited inside the region,” Binali Yildirim addressed at a fast-…

Turkey’s FM: Qatar row should be solved peacefully

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ISTANBULTurkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Saturday supported a peaceful solution to Qatar row and said Turkey would continue to take constructive steps over the resolution of the crisis.President Erdogan stressed that this tragic event -cont…

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