The president of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, Massoud Barzani, said Monday's referendum on independence would not result in an immediate change, but instead would trigger talks with Baghdad about an independent future.
Barzani told VOA's Persian service that following the referendum — which has widespread support among Iraqi Kurds — the Kurdish government would begin discussions with Iraqi officials on such issues as border demarcation, division of natural resources and a timeline for declaring independence. Barzani estimated the transition time would be one to two years.
Barzani said the Kurdish forces known as Peshmerga, who are collaborating with Iraqi forces against Islamic State militants, would continue their work, in what he called "the same epic battle as before." He said there was "no truth" to the American objection that Kurdish independence would damage the fight to eradicate IS.
On Friday, a senior Kurdish official said that the referendum would go ahead Monday, unless the regional government was offered a strong package of guarantees on its future self-determination.
"The leadership in Kurdistan and the people of Kurdistan need a strong package," Falah Mustafa, foreign policy chief of the Kurdistan Regional Government, told VOA in an interview on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.
Such a package would guarantee that after a one- or two-year delay, the international community would recognize Kurdistan's right to self-determination and "accept the will of the people of Kurdistan and the outcome of the referendum," he said.
Mustafa said a strong package would provide a clear guarantee on the future of Kurdistan and "not a return to the same old formula that we have suffered from in Iraq."
The Trump administration is firmly against the referendum and has tried to deter the Kurds from holding it, warning it could have "serious consequences."
"I remain hopeful that there is a very good package on the table in which an alternative might actually be the better path for all sides, but again, we will see," special U.S. presidential envoy Brett McGurk told reporters Friday in New York.
Mustafa said the Kurdish leadership was very seriously considering the U.S. package and that a delegation would travel to Baghdad on Saturday to see whether any agreement was possible.
The U.N. secretary-general, Security Council and many world leaders have also expressed concern that the time is not right for the Kurds to seek statehood, warning it could lead to more instability in an already volatile region.
Neighboring Turkey, which has a large, active Kurdish population, has threatened sanctions, and in a show of force it is holding military drills near the border with Kurdistan. Iran has also said it would consider countermeasures.
"We are disappointed at the reaction of the international community," Mustafa said, adding that the Kurds have earned their right to be a recognized nation.
"We have shown the international community that we are a partner for peace; we have been a great partner in the fight against ISIS; we have been a great partner in hosting refugees and IDPS [internally displaced persons]; and in the protection of minorities. Where does that stand now?" he asked.
"This referendum is not to declare independence the day after," Mustafa emphasized. "We understand the complexities. Therefore, we say that this is beginning of a process — a process of serious and meaningful negotiation with Baghdad in order to address all issues so we end it peacefully."
There is tremendous support for the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, and nearly 1 million people are registered to vote. There have been huge rallies leading up to the ballot, including one Friday night that local media reported drew a crowd of 40,000.
VOA Persian service's Ali Javanmardi in Irbil, Iraq, contributed to this report.