Kurdish Iraqi referendum call: A manoeuvre or blackmail?
BAGHDAD - Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish leader asserts that the time is ripe for his community to cast a self-determination vote that would eventually lead to an independent state. However, many Iraqis believe that Masoud Barzani’s aspirations are unrealistic and somewhat problematic, amid internal and regional turmoil.
Since the creation of the modern Iraqi state in 1932, Kurds have been involved in an armed struggle against the various central governments in Baghdad over gaining independence from the Arab part of the country.
The turning point was in 2003 when the US-led invasions toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who led a crackdown on the ethnic minority in the 1980s. Subsequently, the Kurds became a key player in the country’s new political system in the past decade, establishing a self-rule area in the north while receiving about 17% of the national budget.
Evidently, this was not enough for the Kurds.
On January 3rd, Barzani said, in his strongest show of desire for statehood, that “the time has come and the conditions are suitable for the people to make a decision through a referendum on their future”.
The referendum, which Iraq’s federal government opposes because it will split off an oil-rich area of the country long under its control and it questions which areas the vote would cover, will raise tensions between the autonomous Kurdish region and Baghdad.
The region officially includes three provinces but Kurdish forces hold parts of four more over which the federal government wants to maintain control.
Kurdish forces are key US partners in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS). Iraqi forces fled positions in various northern areas in the summer of 2014 in the face of advancing ISIS fighters. That allowed Kurdish forces to gain or consolidate their control over areas claimed by both Kurds and Baghdad.
The petroleum-rich Kirkuk province, which is mostly held by Kurdish peshmerga forces, will be a particular point of contention with the central government due to the wealth of natural resources there.
Therefore, economic challenges are likely to be the biggest obstacle to Kurdish independence and the main impediment ahead of the referendum.
Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region has been independently exporting oil via Turkey from four northern provinces since a deal brokered with Baghdad on oil and revenue sharing collapsed in 2015.
Baghdad and Kurdistan are facing a cash crunch because of plummeting oil prices, on which both rely for the vast majority of their funds. The Kurds, however, do not have the same loans and bond markets that Baghdad can raise to keep its finances afloat.
Many Iraqis say Barzani’s sudden announcement was likely motivated by his own political troubles, having remained in power despite the expiration of his term last August. Other issues include the area’s financial hardships and the costly war against ISIS.
Barzani is well aware that independence is a long way off but he is manoeuvring.
Baghdad-based political analyst Saif al-Azawi said the announcement “is only a new attempt by Barzani to blackmail the central government in Baghdad and to consolidate his position in the politics of his area”.
Relations between the Kurds and Shia-led governments in Baghdad have been tense. The sides failed to reach an agreement over several issues, such as disputed areas and the oil Kurds are exporting without Baghdad’s approval — a move that prompted Baghdad to cut funds to the Kurds in mid-2015.
Domestically, Barzani is facing the most serious crisis in years as his presidency is facing legitimacy doubts.
Last October, protesters, mainly from opposition Goran Party, attacked and torched several offices belonging to Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Several people were killed during the protests, which were an apparent sign of public anger over economic hardships blamed on the regional government.
Iraqi Kurdish lawmaker Massoud Haider said any decision to separate Kurdistan from Iraq should be approved by all Kurdish political groups.
“This decision is not up to Barzani. The Kurdish parliament should decide. Barzani is only a leader to one party,” Haidar insisted.
He said there “is a long way to go on the path of attaining independence in Kurdistan” as the area must first stabilise its revenues, agree with Baghdad on sharing oil and for ISIS to be out of Iraq.
“It’s too early for this separation,” he said.
Moreover, Iran and Turkey have concerns that the emergence of a Kurdish state on their borders could encourage calls for similar actions by the Kurds and other minorities in their territories.
Ahmed Amin, a Kurd from Dohuk city in Kurdistan, said independence is a Kurdish right that should be postponed for the time being.
“Some neighbouring countries are not comfortable with the federalism we are enjoying,” he said. “Only God knows how they would react if they see independent Kurdish state on their borders.”