As the date looms for Iraqi Kurdistan’s referendum on independence, pressure is mounting on Kurdish leaders to postpone the controversial vote amid fears it could deflect focus from the region’s war on the Islamic State (IS) group.
September 25 is the date that has been set for Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region to hold a referendum on its independence.
And if the relations between Baghdad and Erbil weren’t already frosty enough, they definitely went from bad to worse earlier this week, when Iraq’s Parliament voted against the referendum in a non-binding resolution.
In the September 12 vote in Baghdad, lawmakers simply denoted the referendum as unconstitutional and assigned Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi with the task of “taking all measures” necessary in order to preserve national unity.
“We won’t allow for Iraq to be divided,” Abadi vowed following the vote and urged Kurdish leaders to come to the Iraqi capital to start diplomatic dialogue.
But in an interview with FRANCE 24, Kurdish parliament advisor Tarek Jawhar said that Iraq’s rejection of the referendum had only spurred on Kurdish authorities to carry out the vote even more. “It pushes us even more to fight for our rights, to organise the referendum and to build a state of our own.”
“For each and every day that goes by, we can ascertain that we have no place in this artificial country called Iraq,” he said.
On Thursday, Iraqi lawmakers added to an already fairly eventful week by also dismissing the governor of Kirkuk – a northern province claimed by both Baghdad and Erbil – after he announced that he was following suit with Kurdish authorities and would hold an independence referendum also in his province.
But the week didn’t end there. On Friday, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani then announced that the referendum would go ahead as planned – effectively ignoring calls from the United States and other Western powers to cancel, or at least postpone, the vote. The international community, and Washington in particular, increasingly fear that the tensions building up between Erbil and Baghdad may shift the focus away from their own, and most pressing priority: The war against the IS group in Iraq and Syria.
Turkey and Iran, which both have large Kurdish minority groups, also firmly condemned the referendum amid fears it could fuel separatism in their own countries.
Military option ruled out
Barzani, whose mandate expired in 2015 but who remains on his post as Iraqi Kurdistan’s de facto leader, seems to have his mind set, however, leaving the Iraqi government with little room for further manoeuvre. Especially since a potential military option has been ruled out for the time being, and the only remaining option is for the two parties to enter into diplomatic dialogue.
Hicham al-Chami, a Baghdad-based military strategy expert, told FRANCE 24 that the likelihood of an armed conflict breaking out over the issue is virtually non-existent.
“Prime Minister Abadi has demonstrated great wisdom since he became the head of government and I don’t see him letting himself being drawn into domestic conflict,” he said.
“The parliament has tasked him with a mission of dialogue, and so the issue must be resolved politically, it’s the only way possible because Baghdad has no desire to go to war with the Kurds.”
Firas Mustapha, a former Iraqi diplomat, agreed: “A military option is not on the table, so we have to wait for the negotiations between Abadi and Barzani.”
“If the Americans continue to push for a postponement, there might even be a dramatic turnaround and Barzani might back down,” he told FRANCE 24.
‘How long must the Kurds wait?’
Many Kurds, however, feel they’ve already waited long enough for their independence.
“For the past 14 years, the Kurds and their leaders have stayed patient and kept a dialogue with Baghdad, albeit in vain, because they haven’t achieved any results. How long must the Kurds wait, considering they’ve already spent 100 years hoping to have the issue of their rights resolved?” Jawhar said.
The Kurdish region – measuring some 500,000 square kilometres and stretching across eastern Turkey, northwestern Iran, northern Iraq and eastern Syria – is the world’s largest stateless nation. The Kurds’ dream of carving out their own state was quashed at the end of World War I when the world’s superpowers redrew the map of the Middle East, effectively leaving the Kurds empty-handed.
“It’s our right and our duty to turn to one single alternative: To build a new relationship with Iraq in which the principle consists of two neighbouring states – which are separated but on friendly terms – and the Iraqis must accept this new fact,” Jawhar said.
Al-Chami, on the other hand, said that “although the Kurds hold a referendum, it won’t have any legal value because the Iraqi Parliament has rejected it for being unconstitutional. And so this initiative will reduce the credibility of Iraqi Kurdistan, especially if tension builds in the disputed cities.”
Fears are growing that the vote could trigger clashes between Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and other militia groups over territory that has been retaken from the IS group, especially in the Kirkuk region.
According to Mustapha, the Kurds should have gone about their independence ambitions differently. One option, for example, could have been to wait until the war against the IS group is over. Another would have been to wait until an Iraq-wide referendum could be held. “Because this doesn’t just concern the Kurds, it concerns all Iraqis,” he said.
“Raising the stakes like this doesn’t serve in their interests – they even risk losing everything they’ve gained from their allies in the past few years,” he said.
This article has been translated from the original, which appeared in French.