KURDISTAN REGIONAL Government President Masoud Barzani gestures during a news conference in Erbil, Iraq, in April. .
(photo credit: AZAD LASHKARI / REUTERS)
After years of postponements, war against the Islamic State, genocide by Saddam Hussein, civil war and infighting, the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq will vote on a referendum for independence this fall.
It’s a dream come true for millions on the road to self-determination that was denied Kurds a hundred years ago when the victors of the First World War decided to carve up the Middle East into new states.
Voices in Israel have supported Kurdish independence and see potential allies. MK Ksenia Svetlova (Zionist Union) called upon the government to “support the Kurdish nation in its striving for independence and to recognize the results of the referendum.”
Since the 1990s, the Kurdish region of northern Iraq has enjoyed an autonomous status. This was cemented in Iraq’s new constitutions after the US-led invasion in 2003. In 2005, the region held a referendum in which 98% of 1.9 million people voted for independence.
Peter Galbraith wrote in The New York Times
at the time, “The news will not be welcomed by American and British officials who have studiously ignored the Kurdish independence movement, pretending that the unity of Iraq is not at issue in the country’s transition to democracy.”
Galbraith – a former US ambassador to Croatia and senior fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation in Washington – noted that the Kurds collected 1.7 million signatures in their desire to show the Americans they were serious, whereas L. Paul Bremer, George W. Bush’s proconsul in Baghdad, wouldn’t even look at the issue.
Things are a bit different 12 years later. Kurdistan was one of the main bulwarks against ISIS and a key partner of the US-led 68 nation coalition. Kurds suffered thousands of casualties in their efforts to hold back the extremists. And politicians said that the people on whose land blood was shed deserve the right to determine their future.
On Wednesday, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government Masoud Barzani, tweeted, “I am pleased to announce that the date for the independence referendum has been set for Monday, September 25.”
Barzani received support across Kurdistan’s political spectrum. A Kurdish Islamic Party statement read, “Referendum and independence are an inalienable and natural right.”
Kirkuk Gov. Najmaldin Karim, a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and outspoken advocate of independence for many years, said his city would support it. Kirkuk is one of the “disputed” areas between the official Kurdish region and Baghdad. In the recent war with ISIS, Kurds defended Kirkuk and today it is firmly in the hands of the KRG.
In the spring, the city began flying the Kurdish flag next to the Iraqi one. However the legality of polling in areas in Sinjar, Makhmour, Khanaquin – the major “disputed” areas with Baghdad, most of which are controlled by Kurdish Peshmerga – will remain a sticking point.
At the end of May, the Hashd al-Shaabi (PMU), a collection of mostly Shi’a militias that are part of the Iraqi government, swept past Peshmerga lines near Sinjar to reach the Syrian border. Shi’a politicians in Baghdad and PMU leaders have expressed opposition to Kurdish independence. This dovetails with Iran’s policy, which backs Baghdad’s view that Iraq must remain united.
But Kurdistan also has its allies. In recent meetings in Turkey, the Kurdish flag has been placed beside the Iraqi one. Turkey’s government is close to the KRG because they have shared economic and political interests. Kurdistan exports almost all its oil via Turkey, a necessity since the chaos of the war with ISIS cut the Kurdish region off from Baghdad.
Also, Turkey opposes the Shi’a militias in Iraq and has waged a war of words with Baghdad over the presence of Turkish troops in the Kurdish region, some of whom have been training mostly Sunni Arab IDPs from Mosul. Kurdistan may also find other regional friends in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere who want to counterbalance Iran’s influence in Iraq.
For its part, Israel has an historic friendship with the Kurds dating back to the 1960s, when Israelis trained Kurdish fighters to resist the Iraqi regime. Saddam Hussein, who launched the genocidal Anfal campaign against Kurds in the 1980s, also threatened to “burn” Israel with chemical weapons.
Israeli members of Knesset and the prime minister have expressed support for the rights of Kurds to seek independence.
“With respect to the Kurds, they are a warrior nation that is politically moderate, has proved they can be politically committed and is worthy of statehood,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in 2014.
Svetlova, a member of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and head of the Knesset Caucus for Strengthening Relations Between the State of Israel and the Kurdish People, said the referendum will be a “turning point for millions of Kurds in Iraq and around the globe. For the first time in modern history they will have a real chance for sovereignty and freedom.”