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‘Kexit’ woes: Why a Kurdish independence referendum has few backers

Safin Hamed, AFP | Iraqi Kurdish boys play football near referendum campaign posters of Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani in Erbil.

Kurdish regional authorities have called for an independence referendum for Iraqi Kurdistan on September 25. But regional and international powers are united in their opposition to the vote and there’s dissent within Iraq's Kurdish community.


In early June, Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani finally set the date for a much-discussed referendum on Kurdish independence. The vote would be held on September 25, 2017, the head of the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government) announced, triggering a showdown with Baghdad and frantic diplomacy as regional and international powers scrambled to address -- and contain -- the likely fallout of a looming, high-stakes political divorce in Iraq.

The Kurds have long sought an independent homeland. What sparked the call for the latest referendum in Iraq?

Kurdish leaders in northern Iraq began seriously discussing a referendum in 2014, following years of squabbling with Baghdad over budget dues and oil revenues with then Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. In June 2014, when Mosul fell to the Islamic State (IS) group following the collapse of the Iraqi army, Kurdish doubts about their future security in a united Iraq increased. But then the US launched an international military coalition offensive against the IS group and Maliki was replaced by new Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Given the pressing problems facing the nation, and with IS group fighters heading towards Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, KRG leaders agreed to postpone plans for a referendum.

Three years later, with the IS group threat considerably diminished and Mosul liberated, the day-after jostling for advantage is at a pitch in Iraq and Barzani is particularly well positioned to bargain for what he sees as the best deal for his people. Kurdish peshmerga fighters have been instrumental in the battle against the IS group and many Kurdish officials believe a referendum could increase Barzani’s leverage in future negotiations with Baghdad.

But then there are many others convinced that with the call for a September 25 referendum, the KRG has bitten off more than it can chew by failing to foresee the chorus of international disapproval and the likely diplomatic costs of such a move.

Why is the referendum so controversial?

For many reasons. Firstly, given the troubles in the region – especially across the 600-kilometre Iraq-Syria border – the international community is overwhelmingly interested in maintaining the territorial integrity of Iraq and there’s no appetite to handle the potential dissolution of a state in tinderbox terrain.

Then, there’s the issue of the disputed territories. The September 25 referendum will be held not just in the three provinces that constitute the Kurdish autonomous zone, which was created in the fallout of the 1990 Gulf War. Barzani announced that the vote will also be conducted in the disputed border provinces of Ninewa, Kirkuk and Diyala that are held by Kurdish forces but claimed by Baghdad.

The oil-rich city of Kirkuk is a particular flashpoint. In the chaos following the June 2014 IS group onslaught, Peshmerga forces seized control of the city, handing the KRG a major territorial advantage – and a festering wound for Baghdad.

Kirkuk is a mixed city: it has Kurds, Sunni Arabs, a Turkmen population as well as Christians. On August 29, the Kirkuk Provincial Council voted to hold the referendum in the province. However only 24 of the 41 council members attended the vote, with 23 voting in favour of participating in the referendum and one abstaining. The remaining council members   all Arabs and Turkmen   boycotted the meeting and issued statements denouncing the vote as unconstitutional.

According to Article 140 of the constitution, the territorial disputes between Baghdad and Erbil were set to be settled by the end of 2007. But the Iraqi government never implemented this article and Barzani cites the non-implementation of Article 140 as one of the main reasons for the referendum.

Baghdad, however, maintains a referendum is not the way to handle the issues and has slammed the September 25 vote as unconstitutional. There are also differences between Iraqi Kurdish political parties on the legality of the vote.

What are the differences between Iraqi Kurdish parties over the referendum?

The referendum was called by Barzani’s KDP (Kurdistan Democratic Party) and it was backed by the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan), the third-largest party in Kurdistan, led by an ailing Jalal Talabani.

However the Change Movement [also known as Gorran Movement] and the KIG (Kurdistan Islamic Group) want a postponement of the vote. The Gorran Movement believes only the Kurdish parliament should call for a referendum. But the Kurdish parliament in Erbil has not been in session since October 2015, following a political spat between the KDP and Gorran Movement. Gorran has repeatedly said the current arrangement for holding the referendum is illegal and insists parliament is the right institution to call for the vote when, and this is important, the time is right.

Why are the regional and international powers opposed to the referendum?

There’s been almost unanimous opposition to the September 25 referendum call.

Turkey has a sizeable Kurdish population, estimated at around 14 million, and Ankara views any independence moves by the Kurds in Iraq as a domestic threat. Ankara incidentally has a close relationship with Barzani’s KDP -- Iraqi Kurds export their oil through a pipeline leading to the Turkish port city of Ceyhan and oil trucks go overland into Turkey.

Iran also has a Kurdish population that has periodically staged rebellions and like Ankara, Tehran is also concerned about the potential effects of Iraqi Kurdish independence on its own restive Kurdish population.

The two countries’ joint opposition to the referendum has seen an unusual alliance between Shiite Iran and Sunni Turkey, the two powers that have been on opposing camps in the Syrian conflict. On August 15, Iran’s chief of general staff, General Mohammad Bagheri, arrived in Ankara for a three-day visit -- the first-ever by Iran’s top military chief -- in a public sign of the rapprochement between the two rival powers over their shared fears of Kurdish separatism.

The month of August saw an intense diplomatic shuffle between Erbil and Baghdad as international envoys dashed between the two cities, attempting, at the very least, to persuade Barzani to postpone the referendum.

US Defence Secretary James Mattis visited Baghdad and Erbil on August 22. A day later, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu retraced Mattis’ visit and called for a cancellation of the vote. Next, it was the turn of French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Defence Minister Sylvie Goulard to head to Baghdad and Erbil, where they too called for a vote postponement.

The US believes the referendum is ill advised for a region that has economic troubles and Washington fears it could lead to conflicts over territory, distract attention from the battle against the IS group, and pose a political problem for Prime Minister Abadi. Washington has forged a good working relationship with Abadi and is invested in his political survival following the upheaval during the Maliki years.

So what happens now?

The ballot papers have been printed and Barzani insists that on September 25, residents of the Kurdistan and the disputed regions will be asked: “Do you want the Kurdistan Region and the Kurdistani areas outside the administration of the region to become an independent state?”

In an exclusive interview with FRANCE 24, Barzani insisted there would be “no turning back” on the vote. But some diplomats and analysts say there’s still room for face-saving measures, including a formal guarantee that the international community will respect the results of a future referendum or an assurance that Kurdish aspirations will eventually be recognised.

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