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In The Media

Trudeau refuses to weigh in on Kurdish independence, citing Quebec experience

by Lee Berthiaume (feat. Thomas Juneau)

The Canadian Press
September 25, 2017

OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has pointed to his own experience in two Quebec referendums to explain why Canada won't weigh in on the push for independence by Iraq's Kurdish population.

Yet silence may not be enough if violence erupts, as many fear, and Canadian military equipment and training in Iraq ends up being used for purposes other than fighting the so-called Islamic State group.

An estimated 4 million people in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, located in the north of the country, were believed to have voted Monday in a controversial referendum that has been widely criticized.

The ballots will take days to count, but early results suggest Kurds have voted overwhelmingly in favour of independence. Kurdish officials say the results will be used to kick-start separation talks.

Many countries have come out strongly against the vote, including the U.S. and most of Iraq's neighbours, as well as Iraq's central government in Baghdad and even the UN.

But while Canadian officials have long claimed to support a united Iraq, the Liberal government has remained relatively silent on the Kurdish referendum.

Many have suspected that Canada was staying quiet because of its own history with referendums in Quebec, which Trudeau all but confirmed during an event in Toronto on Monday.

"As a Quebecer, I'm very sensitive to other countries weighing in on internal decisions around the future of a country or separation questions," Trudeau said.

"I was involved in two referendum campaigns in Canada where we very much appreciated foreign interlocutors not weighing in on what Quebecers should be choosing and what Canadians should be choosing."

The independence referendum is a landmark event for Iraqi Kurds, who suffered under Saddam Hussein's rule, but have enjoyed a large degree of autonomy under the post-Hussein constitution adopted in 2005.

But there have also been persistent fears of violence, given several seemingly intractable land disputes between Baghdad and the Kurdish capital, Erbil, particularly when it comes to ownership of the city of Kirkuk.

The Kurdish government opted to hold the referendum in these so-called disputed territories despite Baghdad's objections and both sides have threatened to use force to defend what they see as theirs.

Canadian officials warned about exactly this in a briefing note to Trudeau in November 2015, saying the war with ISIL had let the Kurds "expand into disputed territory in northern Iraq, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk."

"Should the (ISIL) threat recede, Baghdad will have to contend with a range of land disputes with the (Kurds), as well as strengthened Iraqi Kurdish forces, which have received training and equipment from coalition members, including Canada."

The Liberal government responded by increasing Canada's support to the Kurds, which included tripling the number of Canadian military trainers and promising to provide the Kurds with weapons.

Thomas Juneau, an expert on Middle East politics at the University of Ottawa, said it made sense to help the Kurds against ISIL, but Canada will have to live with the consequences if that support is used for other purposes.

"We are supporting the Kurds," he said. "If violence breaks out we are taking a side. We would have to live with that reality."

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