Examined: Kurdish independence in Iraq

In a controversial referendum, 92 percent of voters in the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq chose independence, angering neighbouring countries and the federal Iraqi government.

In July 2014, with the Islamic State expanding, Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani announced plans to hold an independence referendum without approval from the Iraqi parliament. Negotiations between the KRG and national government resulted in the referendum being delayed until this September.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called on the region to engage in dialogue rather than go ahead with the vote and declared it an illegal breach of the Iraqi constitution.

The KRG has declared the referendum as legally binding, leading to a mixed and cautious response from the international community.

The Kurds are an ethnic minority in a number of Middle Eastern countries, including Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims, though Iraqi Kurdistan is religiously and ethnically diverse.

Since 2005, Iraqi Kurdistan has been an autonomous region as part of the Iraqi state, yet the recent and ongoing conflict with the Islamic State has simultaneously increased Kurdish autonomy and decreased confidence in the national government and geographic integrity of the Iraqi state.

With the retreat of the Iraqi Army in the face of the Islamic Stateís rapid expansion, many areas previously run by the federal government became de-facto controlled by the Kurdish military force, the Peshmerga, one of the key players in the anti-ISIS coalition.

Tensions are particularly high in these areas which are claimed by both the KRG and the national government. Many of these areas are ethnically and religiously mixed, with Iraqi Christians, Chaldeans, Assyrians and Yazidis living among Arab Muslims, both Shia and Sunni.

The Ninevah Plain region has been a flashpoint, with the Assyrian Confederation of Europe accusing the KRG of a catalogue of abuses including land theft, forced resettlement, political repression and a “divide and conquer” patronage scheme which has seen the removal of independently elected mayors.

Meanwhile, Kurdish forces in other areas have been accused of carrying out a ìconcerted campaignî to displace Arabs, actions which could constitute war crimes according to Amnesty International.

There is also controversy over Massoud Barzaniís role as president, with his mandate having expired in 2015. It was extended in a move that opposition groups and activists have claimed was illegal. Despite this, the overwhelmingly majority of Kurds are in support of independence.

Neighbouring countries have been unusually united on the issue, with Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria all condemning the referendum, fearing that their own Kurdish minorities may follow the KRGís lead. Turkey and Iraq have conducted joint military drills on their border, and Iran has mobilised soldiers and tanks on its own. Turkey warned the KRG it would ìpay dearlyî if they continued with the referendum.

The United States has been another voice against the referendum with Secretary of State announcing that they do not recognise the “unilateral referendum,” with both the vote and results ìlacking legitimacy,” despite being a key military ally of the KRG.

Israel has been a sole voice in the international community supporting the referendum and as a result many in the region have seen it as an Israeli plot to divide Iraq and itís neighbours.

A senior Iranian official commented that, “Barzani… seek[s] to implement [Zionist] plans for the division of Muslim states.”

Prime Minister Al-Abadi initially dismissed fears of military action against the KRG, however the Iraqi government authorised him to send troops into disputed areas.

With the war against ISIS still raging in the country, Iraq has focused on diplomatic and economic effects, closing its airspace to all flights into Kurdistan and demanding oil revenues.

Al-Abadi has accused Barzani of running an oligarchic state, with oil revenues allegedly siphoned away from government control and into private accounts.

With the KRG refusing to back down, it is likely that the situation will escalate, and two sides who have fought together against the Islamic State may find themselves facing each other.


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January 2022
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