Despite Iraq’s governmental opposition, the stance held by Western powers to the contrary, and the Kurdish heavy, ongoing involvement in the fight against Islamic State ISIS, the Government of Kurdistan in Iraq honoured its word, organizing a referendum on self-determination that took place on 25 September.
“Do you want the Kurdistan Region* and the Kurdistani areas outside the region’s administration to become an independent state?” 92% of its citizens voted yes, with a 72% turnout.
In 2005, a referendum was also held in that territory, organized by the civil society. The outcome delivered a 97% endorsement for independence, but given its non-binding nature, it was not considered valid on legal grounds, since government had not call it.
However, this time, the party of president Massud Barzani, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, conservative and pro-independence, promoted a popular vote with the backup of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, progressive and pro-independence. Both parties make up for a large majority in the Erbil-based autonomous parliament.
Kurdistan of Iraq enjoys a wide autonomy since 2005. Of all Kurdistan territories, the Iraqi Kurds hold the highest levels of political autonomy, including a parliament. However, they have accused the Iraqi central government of breaching it frequently and not developing it.
The referendum took place in two areas: the Autonomous Province of Kurdistan, with Erbil as its capital, as well as other Kurdish areas of Iraq under control of the Kurdish armies, the peshmergas, following their expulsion of the Islamic State. These outlying areas include the region of Kirkuk, very rich on account of its abounding oil, as well as the region of Nineveh, to cite a few. Actually, these Kurdish areas out of the Autonomous Province raise the biggest trouble. The area is inhabited by other ethnic groups besides the Kurds, i.e. Arabs and Turkmenians, both opposing the referendum and independence. Despite the fact that these areas lie beneath the Autonomous Province of Kurdistan, the Iraq constitution allows its population to join it should its inhabitants decide to do so, in a status similar to Navarre in the Basque case.
The Autonomous Province of Kurdistan intent on independence is the richest region in Iraq, with the smallest poverty rate in the country. Its Kurds have been frequently subjected to ill-treatment on the part of Iraq, with Saddam Hussein’s period standing out as the toughest, when he had thousands killed by use of chemical weapons. According to them, Iraq has never held the Kurds in high esteem, and is failing to comply with the regulations set out in the present-day autonomy.
For their part, Western powers, such as USA, France, and Germany, have taken sides against the referendum on self-determination stating that a new Kurdish state may undermine the fight against Islamic State. However, other than Iraq, the staunchest hostility comes from Turkey and Iran, since these states are also home to significant Kurdish minorities standing up for their national rights.
By contrast, the strong Kurdish party PKK’s position is a little bit more surprising, i.e. it defies a Kurdish state in Iraq. The reason behind that position may lie on the fact that it was a conservative party initiating the independence process, it does not go unnoticed that PKK is socialist and revolutionary, or the little enthusiasm shown historically by the Kurdish government in Iraq to back up the Kurdish struggle in Turkey.
Either way, the referendum aftermath has seen a build-up in military manoeuvres on the borders of the Kurdistan in Iraq. Equally, Iran and Turkey have threatened Massud Barzanik with an economic embargo on the territory under his rule. The Kurdish president has called on the Iraqi government to stop its threats and open doors for negotiation. However, his petition has fallen to deaf ears, with Iraq continuing to stick to its rhetoric.
On the other hand, the Syrian government has shown an opener stance, willing to negotiate with the Iraq Kurds, on condition that they do not relent in their fight against ISIS.
Kurdistan in Iraq does not have a coastline, so it relies on the assistance of other countries in order to export its natural resources; oil pipelines, for instance, make their way through Turkey and Iraq.
* In the area ruled by the autonomous government of Iraq