Why does Iraqi Kurdistan want to hold a referendum on independence?

The Kurdish move toward independence has raised concerns regarding the negative consequences of the breakup of Iraq for the whole of the Middle East.

July 16, 2017 21:05
3 minute read.
A BULLET and the Kurdistan flag are seen on a Peshmerga fighter’s vest during a battle with ISIS.

A BULLET and the Kurdistan flag are seen on a Peshmerga fighter’s vest during a battle with ISIS near Bashiqa, Iraq, last year.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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The president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, finally announced that a referendum would be held, on September 25, 2017, to determine whether Kurds would remain in or secede from Iraq.

Barzani, in a interview with Foreign Policy magazine on June 15, 2017, stressed that the referendum is for independence, and after the referendum serious negotiations would start with Baghdad to peacefully become independent. Regarding the challenges the Kurds could face, Barzani emphasized that “we would prefer to die of starvation than to live under the oppression and occupation of others.”

The Kurdish move toward independence has raised concerns regarding the negative consequences of the breakup of Iraq for the whole of the Middle East. Turkey described the Kurdish decision as a “grave mistake.” Iran insisted that Baghdad reject the unilateral decision by the KRG. For its part, the US, despite its sympathy with Kurdish aspirations, stressed that this step “will distract from urgent priorities – and that would be the defeat of ISIS [Islamic State].”

Hence it could be asked why despite all these pressures Barzani wants to hold a referendum on independence. What are the key reasons behind this decision? In effect, since the incursion of ISIS into Iraq, Kurdish authorities have sped up their efforts to move away from Baghdad. Despite postponing the referendum since 2014, for a number of the reasons Barzani now insists on the path to independence.

Firstly, since 2003, the Kurds have believed that remaining within the framework of a democratic, secular, federal system in Iraq would enable them to maintain their core interests, manifested in solving the problem of disputed areas; enhance their autonomous region; bring genuine power sharing with Baghdad; and protect themselves from the rise of another potential dictator in Iraq.

However, under Maliki’s rule, Baghdad started to undermine the KRG’s position and return all power to the central government. With the strengthening of their position, the Shi’ite authorities violated the Iraqi constitution, the principle of consensus, power sharing. Central authorities rejected the implementation of Article 140, refused to arm the Kurdish Peshmerga and challenged every KRG step in exercising its constitutional rights over its oil and gas resources, and in a unilateral decision, Maliki, in 2014, by cutting the KRG budget, imposed tougher economic sanctions on the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. This pattern is continuing, even during Prime Minister Haider Abadi’s term.

This behavior from the central government has pushed the Kurds to increasingly pursue an independent path, by alleging that the democracy in Iraq is nothing but a pretext for Shi’ite domination and that they would never accept any real partnership with the Kurds. As Barzani argued, “for a long time I have held the belief that Baghdad is not accepting real, meaningful partnership with us. We don’t want to accept being their subordinate.”

Secondly, with the rise of ISIS, the regional sectarian war and de facto partition of Iraq and Syria, the political landscape in the Middle East has changed considerably and it has provided a great opportunity for long-standing Kurdish aspirations. The Kurds do not want to repeat the mistake which they made after World War I in which they were the biggest loser in the drawing of the Middle Eastern borders. After a nearly 100 years, the Middle East is undergoing significant change and there is a high possibility that the Sykes-Picot borders will be redrawn, in particular those related to Iraq and Syria. Therefore, the Kurds want to take advantage of these transformations to create their own state.

Thirdly, the fall of Mosul, has created another new reality manifested in controlling Kirkuk and other disputed areas by the Peshmerga, and for the first time in Kurdish history, the Kurds have managed to control all their territory with its natural resources. This has strengthened the Kurdistan position politically and economically and has given more incentives to the KRG to move away from Iraq.

Finally, in post-ISIS Iraq, there is a real concern that Iraq might increase its pressure over the KRG, in particular in disputed areas, as Kurds have had experience with such mentality in Baghdad. Therefore, this Kurdish move is a preemptive step to prevent such pressure and even to avoid another potential “bloody war” with Baghdad, as Barzani mentioned in his interviews with France 24.

The author is an assistant lecturer at Salahadding University-Kurdistan. His research interests focus on US foreign policy in the Middle East, in particular US-Kurdish policy.

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