‘The people of the Kurdistan region overwhelmingly or almost unanimously want independence,” former U.S. ambassador Peter Galbraith told a symposium in Washington, D.C., on July 28. His speech was one of many at the event, which highlighted Kurdistan as “a strategic U.S. ally” and provided a platform for making the case that the region deserves the right to decide on a future that may involve separating from Iraq. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), an autonomous region in northern Iraq, has slated an independence referendum for September 25 and is seeking to persuade the U.S. and other nations to support the initiative. The case for KRG independence at the moment is strong, as the Kurds played a key role in defeating the Islamic State and suffered genocidal persecution at the hands of the previous Iraqi regime, Saddam Hussein’s.
Getting to this point, a referendum, has not been easy. “No nation has secured its independence in an easy way,” wrote Falah Mustafa, head of the KRG Department of Foreign Relations, in an e-mailed response to questions I sent him. “It’s a difficult and serious decision. We are ready to take that risk.” For the Kurds, 30 million people divided among four countries since the First World War, the road has been particularly difficult. Colonial borders left them minorities in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In each country they have faced nationalist movements that have sought to deny them their rights. They have seen harsh measures to suppress Kurdish culture, language, and media. The most horrific atrocities were carried out in 1986–89, during Saddam Hussein’s Anfal campaign in northern Iraq, where 50,000 to as many as 180,000 Kurds — estimates vary — were killed. According to Kurdish officials, 4,500 villages were razed.
The KRG, established in the 1990s, has carved out for itself an identity as a unique political entity, with its own modern airports, border controls, and armed forces, the peshmerga. With decades of support from the U.S., it has come to function separately from Baghdad and has been stable and peaceful. During the post-2003 Iraqi insurgency and the U.S.-led surge, the Kurdish region was free from terror. When ISIS conquered part of Iraq in June 2014, however, Kurds found themselves manning hundreds of miles of frontline and shouldering the economic and military burdens of a tough war. Now they want to take on the political responsibility of independence.
Mustafa says that after 2003, the Kurds “opted for a federal, democratic, and pluralistic Iraq, and we have played an important role in drafting a proper constitution for this country.” He and other Kurdish politicians say that Baghdad has not followed that constitution. It has cut the budget for the Kurdish region and is increasingly authoritarian in its dealings with Erbil, the Kurdish capital.
The Kurdish Regional Government has carved out for itself its identity as a unique political entity, with its own modern airports, border controls, and armed forces, the peshmerga.
In June, Kurdistan announced its plans for a referendum on independence from Iraq. One of the first countries to oppose the vote openly was Iran. The office of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that Kurdish independence would threaten the “identity” of Iraq, which should remain “integrated.” Increasingly this Iraqi identity is dominated by Iranian-backed Shia militias, the Popular Mobilization Units (Hashd al-Shaabi), which have been crucial in the defeat of ISIS. For the Kurds, the Iranian-backed opposition to their independence is simply a new incarnation of the threat posed by Saddam’s Arab nationalism. Whoever is in power in Baghdad seeks to stymie Kurdish aspirations. The risks of independence are outweighed by the risks of remaining “in an Iraq ruled by a Shia religious majority aligned with Iran,” says Galbraith.
Mustafa outlines several challenges ahead. “First, despite the challenges that our region is facing, we must ensure that we are united and strong,” he says, “and that all the people of Kurdistan are for the referendum.” To that end, the leading party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, has worked with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Islamic Union, and other parties to support the vote. However, they face demands from the Gorran Movement (Change Movement) to reconvene the local KRG parliament and hold elections for it.
Erbil needs to communicate with Baghdad, Mustafa says, to “ensure that they understand our ambitions and plans — and that we do not want conflict with them, but we want friendship and partnership.” He adds that it is important to assure neighbors of the Kurdish region that “this step will not go against the interests of these nations.” Iran has said it opposes the vote. The response of the Turkish government to the KRG’s independence vote has been tepid, even though Ankara has tended to be friendly toward Erbil in the past few years. Turkey is a key trading partner. Oil and goods flow to Kurdistan through its neighbor to the north. The Turkish foreign ministry has called the referendum a “grave mistake.” Such responses were expected: In mid June, Kuridsh media quoted KRG prime minister Nechirvan Barzani saying, “I believe from what we have seen so far, the reactions of the countries are very normal.” He also remarked that “there is nothing in it that could cause concerns.”
The Kurds are reaching out to the European Union and the United States at events such as the one Galbraith spoke at, organized by the Washington Times, the London Center for Policy Research, and Kurdistan24, an Iraqi Kurdish news station. The message is consistent: Kurdistan has the right to have a referendum, like Scotland, Quebec, and South Sudan; after 100 years, it is time for Kurdistan to be able to decide for itself.
An independent Kurdistan would be an anchor of stability in the region. If nations can’t support the referendum, they should not oppose it. Mustafa hopes that the U.S. will help Kurdistan’s dialogue with Baghdad and affirm the democratic process of the referendum.
In the run-up to the vote, Kurdistan is seeking to make a series of economic and civil-society reforms now that the war with ISIS is winding down, but two ISIS attacks west of Kirkuk in late July are a reminder that the conflict is not fully finished. Kurdish security officials, including an adviser to the peshmerga ministry, have said in interviews with me that the region is increasing the professionalization of the armed forces by improving their training, compensation, and living conditions. That will make the region a “beacon of hope for more stability and more security in the region,” Mustafa says. Anyone who has been to the Kurdish region finds, especially in contrast with the rest of Iraq, security, a modernized infrastructure, and investment. The region has been a refuge for minorities during the conflict with ISIS.
The question that Kurds are asking ahead of the vote is what comes next.