Iraqi Kurdistan eyes independence

Emboldened by starring role against Islamic State, separatists are set on 25 September referendum

Kurdistan, Kurdish Iraq
An Iraqi Kurd waves the Kurdish flag during celebrations for the spring equinox
(Image credit: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

The leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan say it will go ahead with a planned independence referendum next month, despite opposition from its neighbours and the US.

Iraq's only autonomous region has been largely self-governing since 1991, with its own president, prime minister and parliament. But dreams of a truly independent homeland for the Kurdish people have never gone away.

On 7 June 2017, those dreams took a major step forward when Kurdistan's President, Masoud Barzani, announced that the Kurdistan Regional Government had given the green light for an independence referendum to be held on 25 September.

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Although the scheduled vote is a "declarative referendum only, with no practical political implications," says Haaretz, "it has already ratcheted up international and Arab pressure on Kurdistan's leaders".

The central government in Baghdad, Turkey and the US have all expressed concern about the timing of the referendum, with Iraqi and Kurdish troops still engaged in the campaign to drive Islamic State militants out of northern and western Iraq.

Why is the vote being held now?

The area known as Kurdistan, which consists of portions of modern-day Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey, was carved up by British colonial administrators and divided between the four countries after World War One.

For Iraq's brutalised Kurds, the lure of a free Kurdistan is particularly potent. Under Saddam Hussein's Arab nationalist regime, upwards of 180,000 Iraqi Kurds are thought to have perished in mass executions, bombings and chemical attacks on civilians.

The impetus for the latest call for independence came from an unexpected quarter – Islamic State's invasion of northern and western Iraq in the summer and autumn of 2014.

When government troops pulled back in the face of the IS onslaught in the summer of 2014, Kurdish militias seized the opportunity to fill the vacuum and take over the fight to liberate the region.

Now with the militant group on the verge of defeat and forced to surrender most of its territory in Iraq, the KAR controls an area of land far beyond its official boundaries.

Beyond the territorial gains, the prominent role of the Peshmerga at the head of the charge has played a valuable propaganda role, cementing the notion of Kurdish autonomy in the region and reinvigorating separatist sentiment.

Why has there been international opposition?

Turkey, Syria and Iran, which all have sizeable Kurdish populations, are adamantly opposed to the referendum, fearing it could fan the flames of similar independence movements in their own country.

Syria has dismissed the vote as unconstitutional, while Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has tweeted that Iran "opposes holding talks of a referendum to partition Iraq and considers those who fuel the idea as opponents of Iraq's independence".

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The Turkish government, which has been fighting a bloody internal battle with the separatist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) for more than 30 years, is particularly opposed, calling the planned referendum a "grave mistake," Voice of America reports.

Turkey has already accused Kurds of exploiting the conflict in Syria to further their own agenda. Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG) have led the charge against IS in Syria, but Turkey suspects their true motive is to attract international backing for their independence project.

Opposition from Ankara would be particularly troublesome because Iraqi Kurdistan's oil exports, the backbone of its unstable economy, rely on pipeline and overland routes through Turkey.

Further afield, "the United States and other Western nations are worried that the vote could ignite a fresh conflict with Baghdad and turn into another regional flashpoint," says Reuters.

Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson personally asked President Barzani to consider postponing the election. The answer was a polite but firm "no".

What would a free Kurdistan mean for Iraq?

By and large, Baghdad shares its neighbours' qualms. Particularly disturbing for the Iraqi government is the fact that the residents of disputed areas beyond the borders of the KAR's authorised territory, including the oil-rich area around the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk, will also be offered a vote in the referendum.

Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani told the Kurdish news agency Rudaw that these areas had been "liberated by the blood of the martyrs and the Peshmerga" and that residents had a right to choose whether or not they would join an independent Kurdistan.

But "[Iraqi Prime Minister Haider] Abadi's government will not sanction what it sees as a grab for oil and land, particularly Kirkuk," says The Economist.

Even so, some Iraqi politicians believe that the referendum debate is a valuable test of the new Iraq's democratic credentials.

Former deputy prime minister Saleh al-Mutlaq told Rudaw that while he was personally opposed to an independent Kurdistan the government must respect "the desire of the majority of Kurds".

"We hope we can live in one country," he said. "But if we can't live with our Kurdish brothers in one country, let them achieve their rights and become a beloved neighbour."

Mithal al-Alusi, leader of the left-leaning minority Ummah Party, told Rudaw that he believes the referendum could prove a turning point for Iraq's fragile and fragmented parliamentary democracy.

"If the Kurdistan Region goes ahead with its referendum the people of other provinces too will be able to demand their rights," he said. "The rulers of Baghdad will be left with two choices. They will either become democratic and constitutional or become ISIS and Baathists and dictators."

First, it's important to note that independence may not be as close as it appears. For one thing, there's no guarantee Kurds will vote yes, even if the referendum goes ahead as planned on 25 September.

Al Monitor reports that the "overwhelming majority" of Kurds they interviewed were sceptical about the vote, which they see as a "ploy by the current leadership to distract attention from its failure to efficiently run the government and manage the economy for the last 25 years".

"I am all for independence," one former Peshmerga commander told the website, but "under the banner of these thieves I'd rather cut off my index finger than vote in the referendum."

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