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What the Kurdish Referendum Means for the Future of Iraq
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On 10 April 2003, I was driving on a road west of Kirkuk, waiting for the city to be captured by the Kurdish Peshmerga and worried that we might arrive there before the Iraqi army had withdrawn or broken up. We could see no cars from Kirkuk coming towards us, which might mean that there was fighting still going on.

We could see abandoned Iraqi army camps beside the road but no looters, a bad sign in Iraq in wartime where only extreme danger will deter looters from trying to grab the richest pickings. We were havering about what to do, when a car appeared from the direction of Kirkuk whose driver leaned out the window to shout: “It is finished – the way to Kirkuk is open.”

An orgy of looting was going on inside the city, with the theft of everything from mattresses to fire engines. I saw two looters drive away a large yellow bulldozer they had just stolen. The Kurdish Peshmerga had taken over the city a few hours earlier, saying that they were there to fill the vacuum left by the disintegration of the Iraqi army and to restore order, though they did little to stop the looters.

They had repeatedly promised the Americans that they had no plans to seize Kirkuk and, even now, were insisting that their occupation was only temporary. A senior Kurdish officer standing in the wreckage of the governor’s office told me that “we’re expecting to withdraw some of our men within 45 minutes”.

Fourteen years later, the Kurds still control Kirkuk, the oil capital of northern Iraq with a mixed population of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, as well as much of the surrounding province. The leaders of the US-led coalition during the invasion had feared that, if the Kurds captured the city, they would provoke a Turkish invasion, since Turkey had declared that it would not tolerate such a thing. I wrote an article describing the Kurdish takeover with the headline “Kurdish victory provokes fears of Turkish invasion”.

It never happened: in the years following 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan has been like the eye at the centre of a hurricane, always brushed by disastrous winds but avoiding complete catastrophe.

Journalists reporting on Kirkuk frequently referred to it as a “powder keg” because of its ethnic and sectarian divisions along with its oil wealth, which so many different parties would like to control.

The cliche is a useful one for reporters in Iraqi Kurdistan in general, because it suggests that an explosion will happen without saying when. Again and again, predictions of Turkish invasions or war between the Peshmerga and Iraqi central government forces over disputed territories have proved false or premature.

The referendum on independence for the Kurdish controlled territory, due to take place on 25 September, is the latest event billed as threatening the stability of Iraq and a good chunk of the Middle East. Seldom has a democratic poll in such a small place been so universally denounced by so many international powers, including the US, UK, Germany and France.

A White House statement emphasises “to the leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that the referendum is distracting from efforts to defeat Isis and stabilise the liberated areas. Holding the referendum in disputed areas is particularly provocative and destabilising.”

Regional powers like Turkey and Iran have likewise demanded that the referendum be cancelled and threatened retaliation if it is not. In Baghdad, the Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has denounced it and the Supreme Court ruled that it was “unconstitutional”. But for all the sound and fury, it looks as if the vote is going ahead.

A peculiarity of this hysterical reaction is that the referendum is non-binding and does not commit KRG President Masoud Barzani to doing anything concrete to achieve self-determination. He himself says that the purpose of the poll “is to tell the world that we want independence”, adding that outside powers had believed that the calling of the referendum was merely “a pressure card”, a ploy to extract concessions from Baghdad.

By pressing ahead with it, he believes he has put Kurdish independence firmly on the agenda. If nothing else, he has demonstrated that the international community is terrified by anything that destabilises Iraq and that the cooperation of the Kurds cannot be taken for granted.

Among the Iraqi Kurds, Barzani has already re-established his credentials as the standard bearer of Kurdish nationalism, defying threats and pleas for postponement or cancellation of the vote. Even Kurdish leaders opposed to it as too risky are calling for as large a “yes” vote as possible, so as not to undermine the demand for a Kurdish state.

The national issue also diverts attention from the corruption and incompetence of the KRG government and the dreadful condition of its economy. Barzani has scheduled presidential and parliamentary elections for 1 November, when he and his Kurdistan Democratic Party should benefit from an overwhelmingly positive referendum result 35 days earlier.

The political landscape of northern Iraq is changing in other ways. Isis is on the run and on Thursday the Iraqi army started an offensive against one of its last substantial enclaves at Hawija west of Kirkuk.

As always, calculating the political and military balance of power in Iraq is difficult because so many players are involved and the way they come together is unpredictable. How, for instance, will Abadi react to being treated so contemptuously by the KRG? His forces have just won a historic victory over Isis by recapturing Mosul after a nine-month siege. He will not want to lose the credit won then by being faced down by Barzani.

On the other hand, Baghdad’s hard-fought success at Mosul dependeds on the air support of the US-led coalition. Without it, the central government’s military strength is for the moment too modest to give it a military option against the Kurds.


There is another reason why the Kurdish leadership may show caution after the referendum, assuming there is no last-minute postponement: they have a lot to lose. The Kurdish demand for self-determination is not like that of the Algerians or Vietnamese after the Second World War because, in many respects, the KRG is already highly independent and has been so since 2003. Its government is stronger politically and militarily than many members of the UN. But is also true that the Kurds’ real share of power within the nominally power-sharing government in Baghdad has been shrinking. For practical purposes Iraq is already two countries, despite the pretence that it is a unitary state.

The real constraint on self-determination for Iraqi Kurdistan is that, referendum or no referendum; it remains a minnow in shark-infested waters. The US and its allies will no longer need the Kurds to the degree they do today once Isis is defeated. The Iraqi central government will get stronger rather than weaker. The safest course for the Kurds is still a confederal power-sharing agreement with Baghdad, but so far neither side has had the will to make this happen.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, Kurds 
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  1. The US and its allies will no longer need the Kurds to the degree they do today once Isis is defeated.

    That’s completely backwards, I believe.

    The US and “its allies” (more like its boss in all things ME, Israel) tried to use Isis to cut the Shia Crescent. It didn’t work out. And now they are trying to use Kurdish nationalists for exactly the same purpose (see what’s happening around Deir ez-Zor, the US/Kurdish forces moving south along the Syria-Iraq border).

    In short, Israel (and therefore the US) needs Kurdish nationalist forces more than ever.

  2. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    The US (Israel) seeks to carve out a Kurdistan, but cannot openly back this referendum given its position on the Crimea referendum …

    If a Kurdish referendum does take place, it would be interesting to see comparisons to the Crimea referendum.

    – In 2014, Crimea was, what, 65% ethnic Russian? What percentage of Kurdistan is ethnic Kurd? 33%? 50%?
    – Crimea had international observers present. Will the Kurdistan referendum?
    – Has there not been far more armed ethnic and sectarian violence, including ethnic cleansing, in Kurdistan? Was there any to speak of in Crimea before its referendum?
    – How would our Western media treat a Kurdish referendum, contrasted to how they treated the Crimea referendum?

  3. dinvale says:

    It is a very possible explanation but i can’t believe that US (Israel) have scruples about approval of the referendum in Kurdistan because contradict the referendum in Crimeea

  4. anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    [A peculiarity of this hysterical reaction is that the referendum is non-binding and does not commit KRG President Masoud Barzani to doing anything concrete to achieve self-determination.]

    You either are dumb or play it dumb.

    The traitor kurds are trying to create FACTS ON THE GROUND, no matter that they have NO right to threaten Iraq sovereignty. They are pawns of the western powers and ziofascists.

    We NEVER ALLOW A SECOND ISRAEL in Iraq or anywhere else. Trump is a pathological liar and zionist stooge, otherwise the Western powers including CIA, Mossad, MI6, France and Germany are supporting the traitor kurds and YOU, the liar, know it, because they want to have full control over gthe region. The traitor kurds are agent of Israel and have spies for them for the past seventy years and have killed Iraqis and Syrians for the zionist dicks to erect ‘kurdistan’, but they will not be able to impliment the zionist plot in our region. The traitor kurds will be idengified and executed. Every country including criminal Britain, US and Israel have punished their traitors and some even executed them. The traitor kurds are NOT exception. When you kill the indigenous population for the interest of the INVADERS you are a TRAITOR and must be wipe off the region.

    Traitor Kurds a month ago killed more than 18 Iranians in Tehran in order to destabilize Iran for the enemy, the criminal west and ziofascists. They must be dealt with them now.

    The terrorist kurds at the invasion of the evil empire, where the Kurds helped these invaders 100%, said: we are ONLY interested in ‘federalism’. Now federalism is not enough.

    Now you are trying to fool the public by repeating the lies of the traitor kurds that:[A peculiarity of this hysterical reaction is that the referendum is non-binding and does not commit KRG President Masoud Barzani to doing anything concrete to achieve self-determination.]

    But the traitor Barezani, Israeli’s pawn, said: “the purpose of the poll “is to tell the world that we want independence”, then stop supporting MI6 – Mosad – CIA pawns. No one allow an erection of the ziofascists’ pwns in their region.

    The traitor kurds’s teacher is the zionist jews. Have zionists followed the international laws, or have ever told the world a truth. They have stolen a land and killed its inhabitants and force the rest out, ethnic cleansing. There is a good evidence that the traitor kurds have done the same with many areas in Iraq and Syria to grab oil resourceswith the help of western military to ship Iraqi’s oil to occupied Palestine Israel.

    Why the west does not support the democratic and economically independent CATALAN? ALL ARE AGAINST IT. Why are you trying to sell the Western and zionist plot to us?

    Why don’t you write in support of an Independence Catalan?

    YOU CANNOT because Catalan is NOT on CIA-Mossad-MI6 agenda, but ‘kurdistan’ and traitor kurds are.

    Why are you, as embedded ‘journalist’ are trying to sell the plot of intelligence services to dummies so you can have full control over the Middle East and its resources.

    Kurds are NOT INDEPENDENT like Cantonese, they are nothing but PAWNS of the West and zionist jews to change the map according to Oded Yinon. The proof is everywhere. You are deaf and blind not to see it. Usually embedded ‘journalists’ are, because they are spreading the criminal’s propaganda for their plot to be implemented.

    Oded Yinon is DEAD so its supporters.

    • Replies: @DFH
  5. Ram says:

    ” The US and its allies will no longer need the Kurds to the degree they do today once Isis is defeated. ”

    This is debatable. Once ISIS is gone, with the Iraqi demands for the Americans to leave (as was done previously), the US will fall back on the Kurds for their military bases. They will have no reason to listen to the Iraqis.

  6. MEexpert says:

    How about a referendum for a Palestinian state? Will the US back it? Would the author write about it as extensively as he has about the Kurdistan? BTW, Kurds constitute only 20% of the Iraqi population.

  7. DFH says:

    Please stop embarrassing us sensible anti-semites

    • Replies: @anonymous
  8. anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Stop your harassment by charging people with ‘antisemites’ hoax like the ziofascists do who are controlling the evil empire with its illiterate chief yet playing the ‘victim’ card. Your trick has been exposed long time ago.

    Today, everything is clear like water and no one gives any credit to baby killers and their pawns.

    You should go to louis proyect site, a clown who is charging whoever does not repeat the lies of the evil empire and neocons with ‘antisemites’ HOAX, where he has supported all the neocons’ wars for the interest of the apartheid entity. Sorry, we do not allow it anymore and WE HAVE THE RIGHT TO PROTECT OUR INTERESTS, NOT YOURS. And we will.

    Whoever is silent on Israelis crimes against humanity and its plot against Muslim is a traitor. The only entity so far who DARES to support the traitor kurds is the apartheid entity who are trying to implement Oded Yinon plot, which is dead.

    We are all united against the baby killers and racists and will expose their ‘antisemitic’ HOAX.
    They are themselves antisemitic who have killed many people for their interests and still not enough.

  9. Can any one answer the question as to what kind of Crimes has the Kurdistan Nation and people committed against humanity that they are denied the right to have their own state?
    I am not a Kurd but from Poland. My country and people were conquered, divided by nations that were determined to deny our rights to live in our own nation state. Are the Kurdish people of a Lesser God? Over the centuries the Kurds have suffered much at the hands of Turkey, Iraq and yes even the Iranians. The Kurdish people fought long and hard against the latest Foreign Terrorist and Turkish invaders of their Homeland in Syria, Iraq and Turkey. There are currently 7 Turkish Ethnic speaking nations in the world while the Kurds do not have even one? The Kurdish Civilization and people are older than the Turkish nations put together yet the Turks have “7 Turkish countries while the Kurds have “NONE”.. The Arabs are allowed to have 15 nations while the Kurds are not allowed to have even one to call their own.

    • Replies: @Mao Cheng Ji
    , @MEexpert
  10. If there was a nation that should be wiped of the earth and denied to exist than surely the Turks are as they have Blood on their Hands of many Millions and millions innocent Christians and Muslims people of Europe and the Middle East. The Turks first showed their UGLY faces when they emerged from the Steps of Mongolia over 600 years ago. They invaded and Ethnically Cleansed Millions of Innocent Greeks Christians of Europe in the Quest to Enslave them Under Islam. They thirst for Innocent Blood has never been quenched as they Shed and Drink the Blood of Greeks, Kurds Arabs and etc. The Turks are Barbarians and Thieves that will never be Civilized and pacified as they wage war on its neighbors such as Cyprus, Syria and Iraq. The Barbarian Turkish Hord should be encouraged by the Civilized world to return to Their native lands of the Steps of Mongolia and leave the world in peace.

  11. In 1992 I met a Turkish Army Captain the in the course of a conversation Bragged that it was a common practice of the Turkish Army to decapitate heads of killed Kurdish Fighters after fire fight and mount the heads of the Kurds on poles inorder to Discourage the Kurds part from arms against the Turks. Then you ask yourself would you not desire to have a desire to vote to seek your own Kurdish state and defend yourself from the Barbarian Turks? Do you blame them for holding the plebiscite to determine their destiny and contol their own future as free Unified people?

  12. @Truth N Justice

    Can any one answer the question as to what kind of Crimes has the Kurdistan Nation and people committed against humanity that they are denied the right to have their own state?

    Why, perhaps I can, this way: what about, say, Silesians living in Poland. Should they carve out their own state – out of the territory of what is today called ‘Poland’?

  13. anonymos says:

    Kurdish PKK and YPG’s Hidden Notorious Crimes: Kidnapping, Murder, and Narcotics Trafficking

    n Syria, the PKK’s goal “is to establish a self-ruled region in northern Syria,” [8] an area with a significant Arab population.

    When PKK fighters cross the border into Turkey, they become ‘terrorists’, according to the United States and European Union, but when they cross back into Syria they are miraculously transformed into ‘guerrilla” fighters waging a war for democracy as the principal component of the Syrian Democratic Force. The reality is, however, that whether on the Turkish or Syrian side of the border, the PKK uses the same methods, pursues the same goals, and relies largely on the same personnel. The YPG is the PKK.

    Child Soldiers: forced recruitment, kidnapping, and murder by the PKK and YPG

  14. MEexpert says:
    @Truth N Justice

    Kurds are only 20% of the population. If they are entitled to a separate nation, how about the Palestinians whose land was stolen and Israel was created. Should the blacks in the US be entitled to their separate country? Should the American Indians, whose land was also stolen by the white man, also have their own country? What about the 80-90% Shias who are ruled by a British imposed Sunni tyrant in Bahrain? Shouldn’t they have a right to rule their own country. Also the Shias in the eastern part of Saudi Arabia. Aren’t they entitled to their own rule? I could go on and on. The west cannot pick and chose who gets to have a country. US would like to divide Iraq into three parts. She would like to divide Pakistan and Afghanistan in several smaller independent states as well.

    • Replies: @DFH
  15. DFH says:

    I agree that all of those different peoples should have countries.

    • Replies: @MEexpert
  16. MEexpert says:

    I must add that if the US supports separate country for the Kurds based on their ethnicity, then the US should also be divided along the ethnic lines. For instance, California has majority of Spanish speaking people and ethnicity different then the rest of the Americans. California should be a separate country for them. Same thing for blacks. Why shouldn’t they carve out their portion of the United States?

    Bottom line is that all this division is for the sake of Israel. Keep the pot stirred up in the middle east so no one pays attention to what Israel is doing. Every one is talking about Kurds while Israel builds more settlements.

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