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BAGHDAD – Iraq's top court on Monday temporarily suspended the northern Kurdish region's referendum on independence that's due next week, a decision that put further pressure on the Iraqi Kurds to call off the controversial vote.
The Supreme Court in Baghdad released a statement saying it "ssued a national order to suspend the referendum procedures ... until the resolution of the cases regarding the constitutionality of said decision."
The move is just the latest in a number of rulings from Iraq's central government attempting to stop the vote. On Sept 12 Iraq's parliament voted to reject the controversial referendum and on Sept 14 the lawmakers voted to dismiss the ethnically mixed Kirkuk province's Kurdish governor who supports the referendum.
Despite strong opposition from Baghdad, regional leaders and the United States — a key ally of Iraq's Kurds — Kurdish officials have continued to pledge the vote will be held. It is not immediately clear if the local government in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region would abide by Mondays' court ruling.
The vote was due on Sept. 25 in the three provinces that make up the region, as well as disputed territories claimed by both the Kurdish region and Baghdad.
"The decision today by the court is very clear. We hope our Kurdish brothers see the truth of this decision," Salah Alwan, adviser to the chairman of Iraq's parliament in Baghdad said Monday. "It is clearly the chairman's position that Iraq stay an undivided, single country."
Haidar Mawla, a Shiite parliamentarian in Baghdad said regardless of whether it is carried out, he doesn't believe the vote will hold strong significance. "Internal rejection, regional, international rejection: I think the picture is very clear that this referendum cannot do much," he explained.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview on Saturday that Iraq is prepared to intervene militarily if the Kurdish region's referendum results in violence.
If the Iraqi population is "threatened by the use of force outside the law, then we will intervene militarily," al-Abadi said.
"Holding the referendum in disputed areas is particularly provocative and destabilizing," the White House said last week in a statement appealing to the Kurds to call off the vote.
The Kurdish region has repeatedly ignored calls from Baghdad that the vote is unconstitutional.
The leaders of the Iraqi Kurdish region have said they hope the referendum will push Baghdad to come to the negotiating table and pave the way for independence. However, al-Abadi said such negotiations would likely be complicated by the referendum vote.
Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdish region, has threatened violence if Iraqi troops or Shiite militias attempt to move into disputed territories that are now under the control of Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga, specifically the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Iraq's Kurds have long held a dream of statehood. They were brutally oppressed under Saddam Hussein, whose military in the 1980s killed at least 50,000 of them, many with chemical weapons. Iraq's Kurds established a regional government in 1992 after the U.S. enforced a no-fly zone across the north following the Gulf War.
After the 2003 U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam, the region secured constitutional recognition of its autonomy, but remained part of the Iraqi state.
Close to emerging from more than three years of war with the Islamic State group, many of Iraq's Kurds believe they will be safer as an independent state.
"As Kurdish individuals, we all want to have our own state, have our own flag in the United Nations just like any other nation since we are 40 million Kurds and have no state of our own," said Dzamil Osman, a local merchant in Makhmour — one of the disputed territories where the vote is scheduled to take place.
In related developments on Monday, Turkey's military said it kicked off a previously unannounced drill near its border with Iraq — a clear show of force ahead of the Iraqi Kurdish vote. The exercises started Monday near the town of Silopi, close to the Habur border gate between Turkey and the Iraqi Kurdish region.
Turkey has a large Kurdish minority and is battling Kurdish insurgents. It's opposed to the Iraqi Kurdish moves for independence and has also urged Iraqi Kurdish leaders to cancel the vote.
The military did not provide details on the drill.
Associated Press writers Sam McNeil in Baghdad and Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey, contributed to this report.