Defiant, Kurds vote in northern Iraq, seeking path to independence

The nonbinding referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, whose Peshmerga fighters have been stout allies in the fight against ISIS, nevertheless elicited warnings from Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and the US.

Bram Janssen/AP
A voter leaves a security checkpoint for women before entering a polling station in the disputed city of Kirkuk, northern Iraq, Sept. 25. Iraq's Kurdish region is voting in a nonbinding referendum on whether to secede from Iraq.

In Erbil, capital of northern Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, the longstanding dream of statehood has been sold as a done deal. Streets have been lined with billboards in favor of Kurdish independence, and hawkers old and young have been making a killing selling the sun-emblazoned tricolor flag of Kurdistan.

Over the weekend, young men sparked traffic jams with their celebrations, the graffiti on cars spelling out: “Bye Bye Baghdad.”

On Monday, defying sharp opposition from regional neighbors, the federal government in Baghdad, and the international community, Iraq’s Kurds voted in a referendum on Kurdish independence. The vote is nonbinding, but seeks to set in motion a negotiated path to statehood.

In the run-up to the vote, major powers, including the United States, issued dire warnings that the vote will undermine the war against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) and further destabilize Iraq. But the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) repeatedly rejected the mounting pressure.

Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters
Voters check names on the lists at a polling station, during Kurds' independence referendum in Erbil, Iraq, Sept. 25, 2017.

“The partnership with Baghdad has failed and we will not return to it,” Masoud Barzani, the KRG president, told reporters in Erbil on the eve of the vote. “We are going ahead whatever the price. We are not going to wait for an unknown fate, and will not be subject to pressure and threats.”

On Monday, families arrived early at polling stations in Erbil, many of them dressed in traditional Kurdish attire and military uniforms. Proud parents brought their children to share in the celebrations, and allowed them to dip their fingers in the ink of history. While polling stations were bustling in Erbil, the streets were relatively quiet throughout the day.

“This referendum is like a passport to heaven,” said Rebwar Ahmet, a Kurdish poet, who sang the national anthem for fellow voters before breaking down into emotional tears. “Our future is bright.”

Sizeable minority in four nations

The Kurds’ quest for statehood was born out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire and is shared today by millions in Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Syria and beyond. In these four nations, Kurds comprise sizable minorities and have endured decades of violent state persecution, marginalization, and outright conflict with central authorities.

In Iraq, the Kurds have secured a growing degree of self-rule since the end of the Gulf War in 1991, when the US established a no-fly zone in northern Iraq to protect them from Iraqi persecution. And the Iraqi Kurds, with their Peshmerga fighters, like Syrian Kurds, with their own militia, have been vital partners in the US-led coalition fighting ISIS since 2014.

But today’s vote could test the strength of the broadening partnership with the US, which has strategic interests at stake both with its complicated relations with Turkey, a NATO ally, and with a Shiite-led federal government in Baghdad that it has long sought to guide and strengthen.

On the office wall of Nasr al-Din Sindi, head of the KRG’s ministry for the areas outside its control, a giant map reflects the scale of the territorial ambition of the Kurds but also the hurdles to carving a viable chunk out of Iraq, a country whose borders were largely defined by the French and British in the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916.

Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters
Kurdish security forces outside a polling station during Kurds' independence referendum in Kirkuk, Iraq, Sept. 25, 2017.

Sykes-Picot, which carved up the Ottoman Empire and determined the borders of many modern Middle Eastern countries, left the Kurds stateless and their population, which inhabits a relatively contiguous swath of territory, divided by several international boundaries.

Kurdistan’s borders

The borders that Iraqi Kurds aspire to stretch from the northwestern mountains of Sinjar on the border with Turkey to Diyala in the southeast on the border with Iran. Their ideal state would include Kirkuk, cut across the Nineveh Plains, and integrate parts of Mosul city. Arab, Turkmen, Yazidi, and Christian minorities also populate these regions.

Nearly half the land that the Kurds want and currently de facto control falls outside the designated borders of the KRG. Mr. Sindi says these areas were neglected by the Iraqi federal government even before the conflict against ISIS erupted, adding that the Kurdish authorities spent 130 billion Iraqi dinars (about $111 million) on them between 2011 and 2013.

“Conducting the referendum isn’t the end of the world,” Sindi says in an interview. “Independence won’t be declared tomorrow."

Kurdish officials have repeatedly stated that the referendum will not define the final borders of Kurdistan, but all election billboards and material carry maps annexing the disputed areas.

In the referendum, voters in Kurdish-controlled areas, including those claimed by Baghdad, are being asked whether they would like to be part of an independent Kurdistan. Kurdish officials have reached out to the leaders of different minorities to reassure them that an independent Kurdistan would be a democratic and inclusive state, and that the referendum is no threat.

The vote was being held in the Kurdish governorates of Erbil, Dohuk, Sulaymaniyah, and Halabja. Arrangements were also made to facilitate voting for natives of the Kurdish-controlled areas of the disputed provinces of Kirkuk, Sinjar, the Nineveh Plains, and Diyala.

Election officials said before the vote that more than 12,000 polling stations were being set up within areas defended by the Peshmerga. Natives of areas defined by Erbil as “Kurdish” but outside its control were expected to go to the nearest polling station.

Diverse Kirkuk as a bellwether

In the days leading up to the referendum, a steely determination to achieve statehood was palpable at rallies across the region. “We will become a nation no matter what,” says Nasrin Hamed, the proud mother of two young men who are serving in the Kurdish police forces.

She was among tens of thousands of Kurds who gathered at an Erbil stadium Friday. Mr. Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region since 2005, told an adoring crowd of partisans that the vote represents “the historic achievement of the Kurdish nation.”

But that sense of exuberant certainty and manifest destiny on blatant display in Erbil begins to fade once you enter the city limits of  oil-rich and ethnically diverse Kirkuk, a bellwether and in many ways a microcosm of troubled Iraq.

The city came under Kurdish control when the Iraqi Army fled the advancing black flag of ISIS. The jihadists still have a foothold in the eponymous province, in the mainly Arab Sunni town of Hawijah. Fearing more conflict, Kirkuk residents of all backgrounds have been stocking up on food, flour, and medicine.

Voting took place with a celebratory vibe in Kirkuk’s predominantly Kurdish neighborhoods. Turkmen and Arabs largely boycotted the vote and kept a low profile. At a polling station in an Arab neighborhood, only a trickle of Kurds showed up to cast their vote.

Analysts warn the referendum risks aggravating internal and regional tensions; it could spark intercommunal violence or set the stage for a confrontation between the Peshmerga and the mainly Shiite People’s Mobilization Forces, also known as Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi. The fight against ISIS has put both forces at close quarters in Kirkuk and other disputed areas.

Partisans of each camp clashed Monday in the tinderbox town of Tuz Khurmatu. At least one person reportedly was killed.

‘Kurdish Jerusalem’

“The truth is, Iraq has been torn apart already,” says Juwad Qadim Hafiz, a tribal leader close to the Kurdish authorities whose unfinished but large villa at the end of an unpaved road in Kirkuk contrasts sharply with the ramshackle dwellings of his more humble Arab neighbors. 

For him, the key is not who governs Kirkuk, but who delivers services. Kurdish leaders have long labeled Kirkuk as the “Kurdish Jerusalem,” a moniker that captures both its desirability and contested status as a land that has been the historic home of Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, and Chaldean Christians, or Assyrians.

Mr. Hafiz says he has spent the past few days trying to reassure and encourage Arabs to strengthen their ties with all their neighbors. He likes to think of Kirkuk as “bouquet” in which all components can continue to coexist peacefully, but acknowledges that these are “tense” and “dangerous times.”

Hammad Ali was born in Mosul but raised in Kirkuk. He now has six children of his own. He had no clue if he was eligible to vote in the referendum. Mr. Ali has lived in an Arab neighborhood for two decades and makes a living at a small supermarket in a Kurdish neighborhood. He does know that as a native of Mosul, he has not been entitled to buy a house in Kirkuk because it is a disputed territory.

Kurdish officials say that only Arabs whose families were registered in Kirkuk during the Iraqi census of 1957 have the right to vote. That requirement effectively excludes Arabs who arrived in Kirkuk as a result of the Arabization policies of Saddam Hussein, Sunni Arabs fleeing sectarian violence in Baghdad in recent decades, or those displaced from nearby Mosul in the fight against ISIS.

“Our biggest fear is that this referendum will bring war,” says Ali. “That is the dinner topic in every household of Kirkuk. Everyone is stressed, even the children. I believe that if there was no outside intervention, nothing would happen between the people, but on television all we hear are threats.”

Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters
A man arrives to cast his vote during Kurds' independence referendum in Kirkuk, Iraq, Sept. 25.

Stiff opposition to vote

Keen to keep the focus on ISIS and concerned by the specter of conflict between Kurdish forces and the different Iraqi forces fighting the jihadists, the international community mounted an intense campaign for the referendum to be delayed.

Iraq Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi insists it should be annulled entirely, calling the vote unconstitutional. He has argued that the ploy is a bid to entrench the presidency of Barzani, which expired two years ago, and to shift away attention from the corruption phenomenon.

“We will not let down or give up our Kurdish people,” said Mr. Abadi addressing the nation on the eve of the vote. “We refuse a sectarian and racist state in Iraq.”

Kawa Hassan, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the EastWest Institute in Brussels, says holding the vote amid so much internal, regional and international opposition would fragment and weaken the Kurdish position.

“The risk of violence is serious, particularly in Kirkuk and other disputes areas,” he says. “There are multiple militias, the Islamic State hasn’t been completely defeated, and Kurds are deeply divided.”

Neighboring Iran and Turkey, two nations that have strong trade relations with the Iraqi Kurdistan region, have warned in no uncertain terms there would be harsh consequences if the referendum moves forward. Turkey has been a key gateway for Kurds to export oil, and Iran supplies the region with essential water.  Tehran decided to close its airspace to the Iraqi Kurdistan region even before the vote started, and Ankara closed land borders and told its citizens to leave on the morning of the vote.

Next steps

Pro-referendum officials in Kirkuk and Erbil cling to the hope of an amicable divorce with Baghdad. They downplay the threats from neighbors and dismiss the potential for disaster in the disputed areas. They are quick to relay a sense of hurt and indignation over the position of the international community, accusing it of inconsistency in its promotion of democracy.

“This is no different from Britain asking to get out of the European Union, or the Catalans asking for independence from Spain,” says Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim, whom the Iraqi parliament tried to depose over his pro-referendum stance. “If the vote is yes, then you set a time to discuss the borders and begin separation from Baghdad.”

The stated aim of the vote is to force negotiations with Baghdad and set the stage for a process leading to Kurdish independence. It has also been cast an opportunity to see whether non-Kurds in disputes areas prefer to be administered by the KRG or Baghdad.

“We are ready to go to Baghdad and talk, but after Sept. 25,” Barzani told the cheering crowds in Erbil Friday.

Referendum opponents question its legality and timing. Since it will not translate into territorial partition overnight, some analysts equate it with an opinion poll. Washington bluntly warned it would not play mediator between Kurds and Baghdad if the Kurds held the vote Sept. 25.

The invariable retort from pro-referendum Kurdish officials: “If not now, when?”

Some Kurdish officials and commanders see the international outcry over the referendum as evidence that the goodwill accrued in the fight against ISIS has already began to dissipate. And they worry that Baghdad will be even less compromising once the common enemy is defeated.

Maria Fantappie, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst on Iraq, writes that the best way to mitigate the serious risks of the referendum is for Baghdad, as well as regional and international actors, to simply “downplay the event and virtually ignore it.”

Kurds who turned out at the polls in Erbil manifested no concern about a lack of international support or potential retaliatory measures from neighbors.

“If things go south, I will pick up arms and fight,” declared Herme Mahmoud, a native of Halabja, the town that suffered chemical attacks in 1988 after the Iran-Iraq war. “Whatever happens cannot be worse than the past or a future without Kurdistan in it.”

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