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Tycoon leads 'no for now' campaign

Thursday, September 14, 2017

SULAIMANIYA - On the eve of an independence referendum in Iraq's Kurdistan region, one man was campaigning against a "yes" vote which he feared could stoke tension in the Middle East.

With the 5 million Kurds in Iraq who were eligible to vote united by dreams of statehood, the outcome of the September 25 referendum in the autonomous region in northern Iraq was in no doubt.

But with Baghdad making clear it opposed independence for a region that had abundant oil reserves, some voters feared now was not the time to start moves to break away from Iraq — and rich businessman Shaswar Abdulwahid Qadir has taken up their cause.

Despite being branded a traitor by political enemies, he has taken on the establishment by launching a "no for now" campaign to explain the economic and political risks of a "yes" vote.

"A 'no' vote is better for our people, better for Kurdistan's future," the 39-year-old businessman told Reuters after a rally on Saturday in a soccer stadium in Sulaimaniya, Iraqi Kurdistan's second largest city.

Warning against the consequences of an independence declaration, he said: "It will bring to our people an unstable situation after the referendum."

Mr Qadir's goal was not to resist independence forever. But he feared a "yes" vote now would unleash the wrath of governments in Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria, which could see it as a precedent that could encourage separatist-minded Kurds in those countries.

Iraq's Parliament voted on Tuesday to reject the referendum and authorised the prime minister to "take all measures" to preserve Iraq's unity.

Western powers wanted a delay because they were worried the vote would derail co-operation between Iraq and the Kurds against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Mr Qadir was almost alone among Kurds in raising his voice openly against the "yes" campaign led by President Masoud Barzani and his Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), which said independence would be preceded by dialogue with Baghdad.

But Mr Qadir believed there were others who shared his concerns.

At the rally in Sulaimaniya, Mr Qadir was welcomed into the stadium by dancers in colourful traditional dress and by a crowd chanting his name.

But he delayed the start by an hour to allow the stadium he helped refurbish to fill up, and it never did. About 2500 people attended, filling only about one third of the arena.

After he began speaking, a scuffle broke out when a man in the crowd tried to throw something at Mr Qadir during his speech.

The businessman says he was undeterred by criticism and attacks, which he said had affected his business. "I'm okay with all of it, because I believe in another way for Kurdistan," he said.

Critics said Mr Qadir had used his media conglomerate to advance his agenda and the fortune he made through a business empire that included real estate, television stations and a theme park, made his life very different to those he said he represented.

Many Kurds have been hit by Baghdad's decision to cut funding to Iraqi Kurdistan in 2014 in protest at its construction of a pipeline to export oil to Turkey.

Such actions by Baghdad have increased antagonism among the Kurds, who suffered under late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and increased their desire for independence — a desire uniting the about 30 million Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.

But interviews by Reuters in several cities in Iraqi Kurdistan showed that some voters were worried about the possible fallout of the referendum even though they favoured independence.

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