Damascus rejects Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum

BEIRUT (Reuters) - The Syrian government rejects the independence referendum organized by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, Syria’s foreign minister has said.

Deputy Prime Minister for Syrian Arab Republic Walid Al-Moualem addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

Voting started on Monday in northern Iraq despite intense international and regional pressure to call the vote off.

“We in Syria only recognize a united Iraq and reject any procedure that leads to the fragmentation of Iraq,” Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem was cited as saying by Syrian state news agency SANA.

“This step is rejected and we do not recognize it and yesterday I informed the Iraqi foreign minister of this stance.”

An assistant to the Syrian foreign minister told the pro-government Syrian newspaper al-Watan that what is happening in Iraq “is a product of American policies that aim to fragment the region’s countries and create conflict between its parts.”

The referendum “harms Iraq and harms our Kurdish brothers,” Ayman Soussan added in the comments published on Monday.

The Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad has maintained relations with Damascus throughout the country’s war, even as other Arab states cut ties with President Bashar al-Assad’s administration.

Iraqi Shi’ite militias have fought on Assad’s side against Syrian rebels and Islamic State.

The Syrian government, which is regaining territory with Iranian and Russian military backing, also opposes steps taken by Syrian Kurds towards autonomy in northern Syria since the start of the country’s civil war in 2011.

Kurdish-led regions in Syria held elections for community leaders on Friday, the first in a three-phase vote that will culminate in the election of a parliament and the establishment of a federal system of government.

Syrian Kurds insist independence is not their aim and they want to remain part of a decentralized Syria.

Reporting by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky