Iraqi Kurds Announce Independence Referendum

On Wednesday June 7th Masoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish Region, announced on twitter plans for an independence referendum. He stated, “I am pleased to announce that the date for the independence referendum has been set for Monday, September 25, 2017.” The decision to hold the referendum was decided after a meeting between Kurdish political parties in the autonomous region’s capital, Erbil. It will be held in the three provinces within the Kurdish region, and areas under Kurdish military authority, Makhmour, Sinjar and Khanaqin, which are currently disputed between the Iraqi and Kurdish governments. Kurds living in these regions will be asked “Do you want an independent Kurdistan?” on the proposed date.

Following the announcement, statements of opposition were expressed by the Iraqi government and regional countries. Saad al-Haddithi, a spokesman for the Iraq government, said that it would reject any unilateral move for independence and that “No party can, on its own, decide the fate of Iraq, in isolation from the other parties.” He further emphasized the need for any measure to be “based on the constitution.” The Turkish foreign ministry also voiced its disapproval, calling the referendum “a terrible mistake” and that “the maintenance of Iraq’s territorial integrity and political unit is one of the fundamental principles of Turkey’s Iraq policy.” Similarly, spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry, Bahram Ghasemi, stated “The Kurdistan region is part of the Iraq republic and unilateral decisions outside the national and legal framework, especially the Iraqi constitution…can only lead to new problems.”

The referendum could potentially stir up tensions between the Kurds and the Iraqi government, who have strongly maintained that Iraq should remain unified. A point of contention may arise with any attempts to separate the oil-rich region of Kirkuk from Iraq. The Iraqi government does not recognize Kurdish control of that are and warned against separation attempts in April this year. Despite this resistance, US Lt Gen. Vincent Steward, director of the US Defence Intelligence Agency, claimed on May 23rd that Kurdish independence has become a question of “not if but when.” Whatever outcome eventuates from the referendum, the Kurds and the Iraqi government must sustain a peaceful dialogue to prevent any inflammation of hostilities.

The Kurdish minority in Iraq has long called for their own independent Kurdish state. The neighbouring countries of Iran, Turkey, and Syria have also historically opposed their independence, as they fear that it would set a precedent for calls for separatism by the Kurdish minorities within their own countries. The separatist issue has gained traction since 2014, as Kurdish Peshmerga forces have been instrumental in pushing out ISIS militants in northern Iraq. They prevented the capture by ISIS of the city of Kirkuk, where its oil fields produce about half a million barrels of oil daily. From this campaign, the Kurds have gained control of the disputed territories which are to be included in the referendum vote.

Whilst the Iraqi Kurds are getting ever closer to achieving their dream of an independent state, it will prove to be a challenging task as they face states unwilling to recognize their autonomy, and disunity between their own political parties. In April, Hoshiyar Zebari, a senior Kurdish official, told Reuters that a “yes” vote would not automatically declare independence but would work to strengthen the Kurds’ hand in self-determination talks with Baghdad. The fragile relations between Erbil and Baghdad will be tested, and both must ensure that peaceful means are used to agree on any resulting outcome of the referendum.