Kurdish push for independence likely to unleash new cycle of violence in an already volatile region
I crossed into Iraqi Kurdistan in February 2003 as the US invasion loomed against Saddam Hussein. In a hotel in Dohuk, I requested coffee in basic Arabic but the young man at reception understood not one word of what had been the official language before Kurdish de facto autonomy in 1991.
Months later, with fighting persisting in the city, I went into Mosul with Hoshyar Zebari, who pointed out where he’d been swimming in the Tigris as a boy, before his two brothers were killed by Ba’athist security and he fled Iraq on a donkey.
A generation apart, the receptionist and Zebari, later Iraqi foreign minister and finance minister, each had reasons not to want to be part of Iraq. Older Kurds experienced Saddam’s repression, including chemical weapons. Younger Kurds — today half of Iraqi Kurdistan’s 5.2 million people are under 20 — view Baghdad as a distant, hostile place. There is every reason, then, for the independence referendum scheduled for September 25 by the Kurds’ leaders to yield an overwhelming “yes” vote.
But what do the Iraqi Kurdish leaders seek and what effect will the referendum have? The Kurds had a similar vote in 2005 and today their leaders seem set either on distracting attention from other problems or strengthening their hand in talks with Baghdad over oil revenue and control over Kirkuk.
Squabbling between the two main parties — the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) — goes back to the PUK’s birth in 1975. Promises of a unified Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and army have foundered and the Kurdish parliament in Erbil hasn’t met for two years.
Baghdad argues the referendum upends the 2005 constitution, based on Iraq’s territorial integrity with a Kurdish federal entity. The Shia-led government wants to keep Kirkuk, the oil city absorbed by the Kurds during the crisis over the Islamic State (ISIS), while Iraq’s Sunni Arabs fear a Kurd-less Iraq would be 75% Shia. Without compromise, Iraq is heading for more conflict and ethnic cleansing.
Baghdad is only part of the opposition to Kurdish independence. Neighbours rattled by Syria’s collapse into fiefdoms are disinclined to treat the referendum as a tactical ploy. Turkey has called it a “grave mistake.” Ankara was alarmed by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) running territory in Syria and boosting its parent Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), whose resumed armed struggle in Turkey has led to more than 2,000 deaths since 2015.
Iran is just as riled. It was there that Kurds in 1946 established the short-lived Mahabad Republic and Iran’s 8 million Kurds are probably a majority in three provinces — Kurdistan, Kermanshah and Ilam. Buoyed by the example of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran (KDPI) wants federalism and is vying for influence with the PKK-allied Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK).
Nazim Dabagh, a KRG representative in Tehran, has tried to give reassurance. He recently told Agence France-Presse: “For now, we do not have the intention of separating… We don’t feel that Iraq accepts us. For this reason, we seek to use appropriate opportunities… to demand our rights.”
Zebari has been franker, warning that Tehran wants a security corridor to Syria through northern Iraq policed by Shia militias. “They are breathing down our neck all along the Kurdish front line from Sinjar to Khanaqin,” Zebari told Reuters. “So far, we have been accommodating, patient, coordinating to prevent skirmishes or flashes but this is building up.”
As if to confirm his claim, Ali Akbar Velayati, president of Iran’s Expediency Council and close to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rohani, spoke of a “resistance highway” from Tehran through Mosul to Beirut. This precludes an independent Kurdistan. After meeting with senior PUK official Kosrat Rasul Ali, Iran’s top security official Ali Shamkhani called the referendum a plot by “colonialising” powers.
The Iraqi Kurds will look for help to Washington, which has 5,000 troops in Iraq, but Donald Trump is an erratic president and US plans for a post-Saddam federal Iraq, not to mention $60 billion in reconstruction, have gone up in smoke. It is hard to see how a Kurdish push for independence will not unleash a further cycle of violence.