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For Iraq’s long-suffering Kurds, independence beckons

Referendum slated for September 25 could start the process of turning the autonomous region into an independent state

Gulf News

Barzan, Iraq: A pair of rusted eyeglasses, a grimy antique watch, torn bank notes and old identification cards. These simple items on display at a museum here in northern Iraq, dug from a mass grave of Kurdish tribesmen massacred by Saddam Hussain’s henchmen, help explain why there is little doubt about how Kurds will vote in a referendum tomorrow on independence from Iraq.

“How could the international community expect us to be part of Iraq after these crimes?” said Khalat Barzani, who is in charge of the museum that memorialises the deportation and killings of thousands of Kurds in 1983. Even if the outcome is a forgone conclusion — nearly every Kurd holds dear the dream of statehood — the vote in Iraqi Kurdistan represents a historic moment in the Kurds’ generations long struggle for political independence.

World’s largest ethnic group

Numbering about 35 million people spread across four countries — Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran — the Kurds are often described as the world’s largest ethnic group without their own homeland. Iraqi Kurdistan, an oil-rich enclave in northern Iraq, may be their best hope yet.

The referendum’s approval would start the process of turning the autonomous region into an independent state. But outside of Kurdistan, every major player in the neighbourhood opposes the vote, which could break up Iraq and further destabilise a volatile, war-torn region.

Baghdad has said it would be ready to respond militarily to any violence the referendum sparks. Across the border in Turkey, officials worry that Kurds declaring independence in Iraq would inflame the separatist sentiments of Kurds in Turkey. Turkey has opposed the referendum and warned that it could spark global conflict — it already said a military option was on the table and that it could work with Iran against the Kurds.

American officials, concerned that it would hobble the fight against Daesh, have urged the Kurds to delay the vote. An open rift between Baghdad and Kurdistan could end the cooperation between Iraqi and Kurdish forces, which is seen as critical in the campaign to defeat Daesh.

It has already sparked clashes in the disputed area of Kirkuk, a multiethnic city under Kurdish control that has long been contested between the central government and Kurdish authorities.

“Having a referendum on such a fast timeline, particularly in disputed areas, would be, significantly destabilising,” Brett H. McGurk, President Trump’s envoy to the international coalition battling Daesh, said last month.

Formal breakaway process

Assuming the vote passes, Kurdish officials say, it will set in motion a formal breakaway process, including negotiations with the Iraqi government and a diplomatic push to win the support of regional powers.

 We were mistreated throughout history. We, as a nation, have every right to self-determination. We believed it is the right time to seek independence.

 - Masrour Barzani, Kurdish chancellor

“We have been mistreated throughout history,” said Masrour Barzani, the chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council and the son of the region’s president, Massoud Barzani, who is leading the drive for sovereignty. “We as a nation have every right to self-determination.”

He added, “We believe it is the right time” to seek independence.

Many believe it is only a matter of time before the Kurds have their own state. “The final destination is clear — it is independence,” said Peter W. Galbraith, a former American diplomat who has close ties to the Kurdish leadership.

As a young Senate staff member in the late 1980s, Galbraith travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan to document atrocities the Kurds suffered at the hands of Saddam Hussain, the Iraqi dictator, including the use of chemical weapons and the destruction of villages. His report helped raise international awareness of the Kurds’ plight and played a part in the United States’ decision to establish a no-fly zone in northern Iraq in 1991. That protection gave the Kurds breathing room to build an autonomous region and the bones of an independent state.

 All of a sudden people are concerned about the stability of Iraq and the region. It has never been stable and those who warn of this are looking for an excuse to stop us.

 - Masoud Barzani, Kurdistan Regional Government president

As the region has been troubled by turmoil, the Kurds have steadily capitalised on chaos to make gains. In northeastern Syria they have fought off Daesh, with support of the US, and carved out a self-governing enclave. In Turkey, the Kurds won new political power in national elections and pushed for more rights.

And in Iraq, the onslaught of Daesh allowed the Kurds to claim new territory, including Kirkuk, which was abandoned by fleeing Iraqi soldiers. But with each gain have come setbacks. In Syria, Turkey moved troops into the north to push back Kurdish advances. Turkey, after holding peace talks, reignited a long war with its own Kurds, and jailed Kurdish leaders.

In Iraq, territorial gains were offset by a deep economic crisis after the price of oil collapsed and Baghdad stopped sending budget payments. The economic crisis has created unease even among many Kurds who support the broader drive for independence but believe now is not the right time.

 There are many political, social, economic and legal issues in Kurdistan that we must first solve. We don’t want to see a short-lived Kurdistan.

 - Kamal Chomani, Kurdish analyst

Thousands of Kurdish civil servants, including teachers, have not been paid their full salaries in years, and the regional government, which has not been able to export enough oil to achieve financial self-sufficiency, is close to $20 billion (Dh73.4 billion) in debt.

“There are so many political, social, economic and legal issues in Kurdistan that we must solve,” said Kamal Chomani, a Kurdish analyst who has opposed the referendum.

Iraqis dressed in traditional clothing and holding Kurdish flags walk near the citadel in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, as they head to a gathering to urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum. Photo: AFP

Chomani worries that a declaration of independence now could fail, much like the experience of the only Kurdish state in history, the Republic of Mahabad, carved from Iranian territory in 1946 with support of the Soviet Union. But the Soviets quickly abandoned the Kurds, and the republic crumbled.

“The Kurds don’t want to see a short-lived Kurdistan,” Chomani said.

Another hurdle to independence is the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Baghdad has said it would never give up its claim to the city, and Iraqi Shiite militias with ties to Iran have indicated they would fight to keep Iraq intact, raising the possibility of a military battle.

Kirkuk, inhabited by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens, has long been the centre of dispute between Baghdad and Kurdistan. A referendum on the city’s fate, originally scheduled for 2007 and a key component of the Iraqi Constitution the Americans helped write, has never been held.

 Baghdad is willing to negotiate on independence but not with Kirkuk. This is an absolute red line. For the Kurds to decide on their own the fate of the city is a mistake.

 - Joost Hiltermann, International Crisis Group Director

But in 2014, as Daesh’s terrorists bore down on the city and Iraqi soldiers dropped their weapons and ran, the Kurds took the city, which they consider a spiritual homeland and whose vast oil wealth could sustain an independent state.

Analysts say Baghdad is open to talking about independence with the Kurds, as long as their state does not include Kirkuk.

“People in Baghdad are willing to negotiate on independence,” said Joost Hiltermann, programme director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution organisation. “But not with Kirkuk. That is an absolute red line for everyone in Baghdad who isn’t a Kurd.”

Ceding Kirkuk to the Kurds is also anathema for the city’s Arabs and Turkmen.

The city’s Arab deputy mayor, Rakan Saeed Al Jabouri, ticks off a list of Arab grievances in Kirkuk, documented by Human Rights Watch: being forcibly displaced by Kurdish security forces, denied jobs and barred from buying land. “For the Kurds to decide on their own the fate of the city is a mistake,” he said.

New York Times News Service