The Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has stated that his government will not hold discussions with the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in relation to the referendum on Kurdistan independence from Northern Iraq because he views it as unconstitutional. He has also expressed a willingness to impose punitive measures on the KRG, such as the suspension of international flights to and from the Kurdish region, especially if they do not give Baghdad full control of their airports. While the electoral commission is still confirming the result of the referendum, an initial count of 282,000 ballots demonstrates that 93% of Iraqi Kurds support independence.
The President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party Masoud Barzani states that the referendum provides a non-binding yet entirely legitimate mandate for the region to negotiate the issue of secession with Iraq and neighbouring nations. In a joint statement on Thursday, Turkey, Iran and Iraq predicted that the referendum may incite new conflicts within the region so therefore it may be necessary for their forces to consider counter-measures against Kurdish Northern Iraq. For instance, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened to impose sanctions on the region. His troops have engaged in military drills near the border in an effort to provide a clear political statement on the issue. Furthermore, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres acknowledged in a press release on Monday that the referendum was not only unilaterally declared by the KRG but opposed by Iraqi constitutional authorities and the international community. He recognised that the decision to hold the referendum in disputed areas such as Kirkuk only adds to regional instability.
Relations between the Kurdish people in Northern Iraq and the rest of the country have been relatively poor. First, the Kurdish people feel that the British and French designers of the borders within the Middle East failed to address their evident statelessness upon the fall of the Ottoman Empire. The United States did not reform any national boundaries when they overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003 – a leader who is deeply resented by the Kurdish people particularly because he gassed and killed 5,000 of them in Halabja in 1988. Second, and more recently, Baghdad cut public servant salaries within Kurdistan at a rate of 70%. Third, when ISIS took control of a substantial proportion of Western and Northern Iraq in June 2014 the Iraqi military stronghold disintegrated. This allowed the Peshmerga to take control of disputed territories such as Kirkuk. The then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was blamed for poor security services and this eventually led him to lose power to Haider Al-Abadi. Kurdish leaders agreed to postpone any referendum on their independence in order to work with the Iraqi National Army to contain ISIS. There was evidently a progression in the liberation of Mosul in April 2017. Consequently, the ruling political parties agreed to call for a referendum in 2017 in order to strengthen their case for self-determination.
The issue of Kurdish independence will no doubt continue to influence political dynamics within the region of Northern Iraq. The Iraqi government should undertake proper negotiations with the Iraqi Kurds in a spirit of mutual cooperation and respect. However, it may be necessary for the leaders of each nation or region to make some concessions for the greater good that can be achieved through constructive dialogue. It is evident that a central desire of the Kurds is to have their internal grievances respected while Iraq wants to maintain control over its own Constitution and national affairs. It may be appropriate for international organisations such as the United Nations to be further involved in the mediation of existing and forthcoming disputes in order to protect the stability of the region.
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