Erbil, Kurdistan Region, Iraq — The day after the Kurdish independence referendum, people have left the ink they used to stamp their ballots to dry on their fingers. It is a symbol of their desire for independence. Many have waited their whole lives for this moment. Although there was a referendum in 2005 alongside parliamentary elections, this one was held independent of elections, and Kurds in northern Iraq hope it will lead to independence.
The path to the referendum has been difficult. Announced in June, it took until the night before the polls opened to get all the major parties on board when the Gorran party and the smaller Islamic Komol agreed to support the vote. Until the last minute, there was intense pressure from the international community, the central government in Baghdad, and neighboring Iran and Turkey to cancel the balloting.
On September 24, Kurdistan Regional Government president Masoud Barzani held a large press conference at an official office situated in the hills north of the capital of Erbil. About 400 journalists were packed into a hall as he went through the long history of why Kurds deserve a right to vote for a separation from Iraq. “We ask, ‘why is it wrong to have a vote?’” Barzani said, replying to the long list of countries, including the United States, opposing the referendum. He noted that during Saddam Hussein’s genocidal Anfal campaign in the 1980s, the Kurds did not have a chance to vote for independence. “And it happened to the Yazidi Kurds [in 2014 by Islamic State] — it’s part of the continuation of that culture, the culture of denial of the existence of Kurds in the area that does not recognize the existence of Kurds,” Barzani said. “That is why we have reached this decision that only through independence can we have this.”
During the day of the referendum, on September 25, the voting occurred without major incidents. In the capital of Erbil, lines stretched around the block at some polling stations. In the city of Kirkuk, control of which is disputed with Baghdad, turnout reached 80 percent according to the local Rudaw channel. In the northern city of Duhok, an estimated 90 percent of voters turned out. A day into the counting, results showed more than 90 percent had voted Yes in support of independence.
The Kurdish leadership has sought to emphasize that the vote is for a democratic and pluralist independent Kurdistan. “Arabs are our brothers,” said President Barzani, as he listed other groups in the region, such as Turkmen and Chaldean Christians, which form the multicultural patchwork of peoples in northern Iraq.
The U.S. State Department and White House urged the Kurds to not go through with their vote, and, after they did, the State Department expressed “disappointment” at the local government’s “decision to conduct a referendum on independence.” Many Kurds can’t understand the opposition, especially coming from Washington, which has historically supported democracy in the region. Dr. Kemal Kirkuki, a former speaker of the local parliament in the Kurdish region and a senior official in the Kurdistan Democratic party, as well as a frontline commander in the local armed forces, said it is the right of the people to seek self-determination. “They say the time is not right, but it is better to respect this democratic process,” Kirkuki said, speaking at his local headquarters near Kirkuk. He listed U.N. resolutions and the U.N. charter, which supports self-determination, to back up his claim.
On the streets in Erbil, and at Peshmerga units on the frontline near Hawija, Kirkuki’s sentiments were shared. There was an enthusiasm for the vote, with Kurdish flags flying from cars and adorning almost every building in the local capital. Threats from Turkey to close the border and from Iran did not deter voters. Many people wondered, however, what would happen the day after. Many of the older generation who had lived under Saddam Hussein’s regime said that what they face today in terms of a border closure or economic sanctions from Baghdad is nothing compared to the massacres of the 1980s and the police state they once lived under. Younger people seem to think that the threats will not translate into action. This is in part due to the messaging of the Kurdish leadership, which believes neighbors, such as Turkey, have much to lose from a confrontation because cross-border trade benefits both countries.
Now that the referendum has ended, there will be expectations that it leads to independence. Kurds in the region often speak in terms of the hundred-year history since their area was shoehorned into the modern state of Iraq by the British. They say they have been asked to give up Kirkuk before, in the 1970s, 1992, and 2003, and agreed to dialogue with Baghdad, only to see the dialogue fail and Baghdad renege on its promises. Now the message is that there is no going back.
At a local coffee shop near an office tower called the World Trade Center, a Kurdish woman speaking to a Filipino waitress said that the rest of Iraq “makes nothing but terrorists.” Kurdistan, in the views of many locals, is the opposite of Baghdad, a stable and democratic region. What it needs now is for the international community to endorse the local vote.
– Seth J. Frantzman is a researcher, a Jerusalem-based journalist, and an op-ed editor of the Jerusalem Post.