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KIRKUK: Residents of the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk north of Baghdad were stocking up with supplies on Saturday ahead of the planned controversial referendum on independence for Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.

People in the city fear the situation could deteriorate if the plebiscite set for Monday goes ahead, as the oil-rich province is disputed between the federal government in Baghdad and the regional government in Arbil.

Iraq’s government has called the referendum unconstitutional, with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi rejecting it, “whether today or in the future”. Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani on Saturday delayed a scheduled news conference on the referendum as international pressure mounts for a postponement. But on Friday, he had again insisted the vote would take place, despite a UN Security Council warning that it was “potentially destabilising”.

“The price of food has gone up by 20 per cent. What the politicians are doing only benefits businessmen, and it’s the poor residents who suffer,” said market vendor Omran Khodr.

Kirkuk is not one of the three provinces that have been part of the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq since 2003. It is in an area disputed between Baghdad and the Kurds who claim it is theirs historically, since Iraq’s former dictator Saddam Hussein chased them out and replaced them with Arabs.

Saturday’s rush by Kirkuk residents to stock up came as the body responsible for organising the referendum said it would indeed go ahead on Monday. “The referendum will take place on the day scheduled,” the organising committee announced.

The issue has highlighted differences between the two main Kurdish parties, Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani.

Mudah Bakhtiar, a member of the PUK political bureau, told journalists his party “believes that the alternative (to the referendum) proposed by the UN and the major powers is acceptable”.

The United States and other Western nations are backing a UN-supported “alternative” plan for immediate negotiations on future relations in exchange for dropping the referendum.

“We believe that taking into consideration the international conditions ... the proposal meets the strategic objectives of our people and we have informed Massud Barzani and the KDP of our position,” Bakhtiar added.

The PUK not taking part in the referendum would greatly diminish its scope. The KDP controls Arbil and Dohuk provinces, but the PUK controls Sulaimaniyah province and the city of Kirkuk.

The Kurdish authorities say a “yes” vote would not result in an immediate declaration of independence but would pressure Baghdad for concessions on key issues such as oil and federal financing.

But Barzani has also come under increasing international pressure not to hold the referendum which he himself set in motion.

And Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim warned on Saturday that Ankara’s actions in response to the planned referendum would have “economic and security dimensions”.

Published in Dawn, September 24th, 2017