A recent decision by Iraqi Kurds to vote on independence has been met with disapproval from both crucial allies and the United States. The vote on independence, set for September 25th, 2017, has been long in the making. Iraqi Kurdistan was granted autonomy in 1970, although it has continued to fall under the rule of the Iraqi government, and the Kurdish population have been subject to discrimination and genocide, particularly under Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Tensions between the Kurds and the Arab population in Iraq pre-date the creation of the nation after the First World War.
Iraq has long been divided with the Shi’ite population residing mostly in the south of the nation, and a mixture of Sunni Arabs and Kurds in the north. The Kurdish population also resides in the nearby nations including Syria, Turkey and Iran, who, along with Iraq, have traditionally opposed the idea of Kurdish separation for fear that the movement may encourage similar movements within their own nations. Turkey and Iran, in particular, are major trading partners, and a continued positive relationship with Iraq remains crucial.
The Prime Minister of Iraq, Haider al-Abadi, has stated he respects the right of Kurdistan to hold a vote on independence however, there is a concern that holding a vote on separation would not be in the best interest of Kurdistan nor Iraq, particularly since it could have significantly destabilizing consequences in the face of the war against IS.
The Kurdish population has been significant in the fight against IS, with their own armed force, Peshmerga, being a crucial US ally in the fight. After defending the Iraqi area of Kirkuk from IS after the flight of the Iraqi area, the Kurds have autonomously run this region since 2014 along with the towns of Sinjar, Khanaqin and Makhmour. Voting will take place in each of these regions.
Kirkuk is the location of some of the nation’s most lucrative oil fields and the Kurdish occupation has sparked conflict with Baghdad. The Kurdish decision to begin oil exportation gave their administration independent access to the oil markets and increased their financial position relative to Baghdad, further fuelled by the ability to pipe crude oil to the Mediterranean coast, as the result of a deal with Turkey. This, along with a mix of Turkish, Arab, Christian, and Kurdish inhabitants makes it the most highly disputed area.
Although a majority “yes” vote would not guarantee Kurdish independence from Iraq, it would strengthen the long-running campaign for a uniquely Kurdish state. The date follows a meeting between the Kurdish political parties, who determined that the question to put to voters will be “do you want an independent Kurdistan?” Voting will take place in the four key regions which comprise the proposed province of Kurdistan, as well as areas deemed to be outside of the region’s administration.
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