Iraqi Kurds still love US despite its opposition to Kurdish independence, says Kurdish leader

U.S. opposition to an independence referendum by Iraqi Kurds will not break a long-standing alliance between the stateless community and the United States, the Kurdish prime minister says.

While Washington opposed the September 2017 referendum for independence, Kurdish Prime Minister Nechiravan Barzani insisted that the people of Kurdistan still see America as their No. 1 partner and have hope the U.S. will come to endorse their ongoing dream of independence.

“There was disappointment among the Kurdish people; the people of Kurdistan have had high expectations from the United States and they believe that the values the U.S. cherishes, we also cherish,” Barzani told Fox News in an exclusive interview last week in his office.

“But the people of Kurdistan, they still love the United States,” he said. “Kurds consider themselves a friend and partner to the United States. We want this to continue long term.”

The U.S., joined by most of the international community, backed the Baghdad Central Government in opposing the referendum over fears the push toward independence would have potentially “catastrophic consequences” on the fight against ISIS and on the region as a whole, given that neighbors Iran and Turkey worry that their own significant Kurdish populations would attempt to carve out land for themselves.

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Kurdish Peshmerga soldier waves the Kurdish flag while manning a front line in the battle against ISIS  (Fox News/Hollie McKay )

Barzani noted that his people’s disappointment stemmed not only from the U.S. policy to oppose their freedom quest, but what happened next.

After the Kurds refused Baghdad’s insistence that the vote be canceled as unconstitutional and an antagonizing act aimed at weakening the Iraqi government, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered the army to retake “disputed territories” -- which the Kurdish Peshmerga had been guarding since the ISIS invasion. Iran-backed fighters known as the Popular Mobilization Units assisted the effort.

Most notably, violent tensions arose around the strategic oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Several casualties were reported on both the Peshmerga and Iraqi sides as a result of the Oct. 16 clashes, which ended when the Peshmerga withdrew.

“Over 1,846 Peshmerga soldiers have sacrificed their lives and more than 10,000 were wounded fighting ISIS,” Barzani said. “ISIS was a threat not only to Kurdistan, but to Europe, the U.S., to humanity. Therefore, the Kurdish people were expecting that when a threat comes in, the U.S. would stand by them. They were not expecting that American tanks given to the Iraq government would be used against them by the Popular Mobilization Units.”

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Iraqi Security Forces, with backing from the Popular Mobilization Units, now control checkpoints in most formerly "disputed territories" between the Baghdad Central Government and Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq.  (Fox News/Hollie McKay )

Iraqi officials have denied that the Iranian-backed forces have possession over any U.S.-issued tanks or weaponry or that they were used against the Kurds.

Barzani also contended that it was never his government’s intention to “control” or grab Kirkuk or the disputed territories from the Iraqi government. He said the Peshmerga forces went there in 2014 as the ISIS threat loomed at the behest of Abadi’s predecessor, Nouri al-Malaki.

“The fact is neither Baghdad nor Erbil had full control over these areas,” Barzani said, stressing that the issues should have been “addressed in accordance with the constitution” and not by military pressure.

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The prime minister said Iraq’s military action in response to the referendum, which included shutting down the region’s two international airports, was never anticipated.

“What we saw was a very peaceful experience of people to express their right to self-determination by putting their finger in the ink and voting, while the reaction from Baghdad was to use force,” Barzani said. “We have made it clear we want to address all these issues through dialogue with Baghdad, but they have not yet shown their readiness for this.”

Barzani – who is currently at the helm of the autonomous region after his uncle Masoud Barzani stepped down as president in the weeks after the referendum – welcomed a deeper involvement by the U.S. to resolve the issue, but maintained that they have no regrets about holding the referendum.

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Kurdish flags adorned with support for the independence referendum still adorn its capital of Erbil, weeks after the controversial vote and its ongoing fallout.  (Fox News/Hollie McKay )

“I don’t believe anyone here, any political party, thinks they made a mistake or they did something wrong. What we have seen was a democratic process,” he said. “It was an expression of will, not less, not more.”

The long-awaited Sept. 25 vote – of which more than 92 percent of some 8 million Iraqi Kurds voted “yes” to part ways with the Baghdad government – was non-binding in that unilateral succession would not immediately take place. Iraqi Kurds hoped it would prompt negotiations for eventual separation.

While it remains to be seen when and how Kurdish aspirations for an independent state will now move forward – some analysts suggest it is in tatters and U.S. officials have doubled down on the long-held policy to “support a federal, prosperous, unified and democratic Iraq” – Barzani said they remain committed to the process and are still hopeful for American backing.

“We have to look at Iraq very realistically,” he said. “For those who talk about a strong, centralized Iraq we have seen that doesn’t work. The most important point for Iraq and what the international community wants to see in Iraq is stability, which means we should find a model that all communities in Iraq can agree upon and can be sustained.”

He added, “Our position after the referendum is to address our problems with Baghdad on the basis of the constitution. But our right to self-determination will remain as it is. This is a new era and we hope the American people will come to support our cause.”

Hollie McKay has been a FoxNews.com staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay