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FILE PHOTO: Iraq's Kurdistan region's President Massoud Barzani gestures during a joint news conference with German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel (not pictured) in Erbil, Iraq April 20, 2017. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Maher Chmaytelli
ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region on Wednesday announced it would hold a referendum on independence, in a move the central government in Baghdad is likely to oppose strongly.
"I am pleased to announce that the date for the independence referendum has been set for Monday, Sept. 25, 2017," Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani said on Twitter.
Barzani's assistant Hemin Hawrami tweeted that voting would take place in the disputed region of Kirkuk and three other areas also claimed by the central government; Makhmour in the north, Sinjar in the northwest and Khanaqin in the east.
The president of Iraq's ruling Shi'ite coalition told Reuters in April it would oppose a Kurdish referendum. Ammar al-Hakim especially warned the Kurds against any move to annex oil-rich Kirkuk.
The referendum date was set after a meeting of Kurdish political parties chaired by Barzani, who heads the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
Hawrami said the question put to voters would be "do you want an independent Kurdistan?"
A senior Kurdish official, Hoshiyar Zebari, told Reuters in April the expected "yes" vote would strengthen the Kurds' hand in talks on self-determination with Baghdad and would not mean automatically declaring independence.
The Kurds are playing a major role in the U.S.-backed campaign to defeat Islamic State (IS), the ultra-hardline Sunni Islamist group that overran about a third of Iraq three years ago and also controls parts of Syria.
IS fighters have been squeezed into a small area of Mosul, their de-facto capital in Iraq, as a push to retake the city closes in.
FEAR OF SEPARATISM
Iraq's majority Shi'ite Arab community mainly live in the south while the Kurds and the Sunni Arabs inhabit different areas of the north. The centre around Baghdad is mixed.
The idea of Iraqi Kurdish independence has been historically opposed by Iraq and neighbouring Iran, Turkey and Syria, as they fear separatism spreading to their own Kurdish populations.
Kurdish officials will visiting Baghdad and neighbouring states to discuss the referendum plan, Erbil-based TV Rudaw said, adding that elections for the Kurdish regional parliament are planned for Nov. 6.
Iraq has been led by Shi'ites since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, by the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.
The Kurds have their own armed force, the Peshmerga, which in 2014 prevented Islamic State from capturing Kirkuk after the Iraqi army fled in the face of the militants. They are effectively running the region, also claimed by Turkmen and Arabs.
Hardline Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi'ite militias have threatened to expel the Kurds by force from this region and other disputed areas.
The Sinjar region is populated by Yazidis, the followers of an ancient religion who speak a Kurdish language and the group most persecuted by Islamic State. Makhmour is south of the Kurdish capital Erbil and Khanaqin is near the border with Iran.
Kirkuk's Kurdish-led provincial council earlier this year rejected a resolution by the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad to lower Kurdish flags which since March have been flown alongside Iraqi flags on public buildings in the region.
Masrour Barzani, head of the Kurdish government's Security Council and son of President Barzani, said in June last year Iraq should be divided into separate Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish entities to prevent further sectarian bloodshed.
(Reporting by Maher Chmaytelli; Editing by Andrew Roche)