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Why World Powers Fear the Kurdish Referendum Could Derail Isis Fight
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The Kurdish leadership is coming under intense international pressure to postpone the referendum on independence due to take place in Kurdish-controlled parts of northern Iraq on 25 September.

Outside powers see the poll as destabilising Iraq and neighbouring countries at the very moment when Isis and its self-declared caliphate are being defeated. But Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, who called the referendum, says he intends to go ahead with it and it would be a humiliating failure for him to back down at this late stage, having rekindled the fires of Kurdish nationalism so successfully.

“Barzani and his advisers do not take the threats from Iran and Turkey seriously, saying that they have heard them all before and nothing happened,” says the veteran Kurdish leader Omar Sheikhmous. He adds: “I hope they are right.”

He himself warns that the Kurds are very isolated regionally and internationally, pointing out that the UN, US, UK, France and Germany are opposed to the referendum, as are neighbouring states such as Iran and Turkey as well as the Iraqi government in Baghdad. He draws a parallel with the historic betrayal of the Iraqi Kurds by the US and Iran to Saddam Hussein in 1975, when they similarly found themselves without allies.

Mr Barzani is accused by his critics of calling the poll to secure his own power as leader of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) by exploiting Kurdish patriotism. He can take advantage of the weakness and divisions of his traditional Kurdish political rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which cannot oppose a referendum without being charged with betraying the Kurdish right to self-determination for which they have fought for 100 years.

By playing the nationalist card, Mr Barzani also diverts the attention of voters away from the disastrous economic state of the KRG since 2014 when it lost its share of central government oil revenues and the price of its own oil plummeted. Irbil is full of half-completed buildings with rusting cranes beside them while many government employees have not been paid for months.

Even if the referendum was born out of political manoeuvring within Iraqi Kurdistan, it has now built up its own momentum as Kurds rally around their red, white and green flag. There have been enthusiastic mass rallies all over KRG. “Barzani has shown that he is a real leader and has stood up to pressure to cancel the vote,” says Kamran Karadaghi, a commentator on Kurdish affairs and previously chief of staff to the former Kurdish President of Iraq Jalal Talabani. He recalls that politicians and officials in Baghdad used to make jokes in the past about Kurdish threats to secede from Iraq, but believes they will do so no longer.

Mr Karadaghi says that the Baghdad government has made a mistake in “denouncing the referendum as a sort of Frankenstein”, which will inevitably produce violence and war. He believes that this overreaction on the part of Baghdad and foreign powers serves only to anger and provoke the Kurds, citing as an example the threat by former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who demanded this week that the referendum be cancelled and said that “we will not allow the creation of a second Israel in northern Iraq”.

Despite the political uproar it has provoked, the referendum does not oblige Mr Barzani to secede from Iraq and establish an independent Kurdish state, though it will show that such a move has massive popular support. It will be very different from the British vote for Brexit in the referendum in 2016 because it does not force Kurdish leaders to break away from Iraq. A more certain result of the referendum will be that it will bolster Mr Barzani and the KDP in presidential and parliamentary elections 35 days later on 1 November. Previously, he held his post unconstitutionally, having outstayed his term as president which ran out in 2015, and effectively closed down the Kurdish parliament by preventing its speaker entering the Kurdish capital Irbil where it sits.

In Irbil, the KRG authorities do not appear to have taken any concrete measures on the ground to open the way to practical independence. This is partly because the KRG already behaves, in most respects other than international recognition, very much like an independent state, having achieved political and military autonomy under a US air umbrella when Saddam Hussein withdrew the Iraqi army in the aftermath of the Gulf war and Kurdish uprising in 1991. This was enhanced further by the US invasion in 2003 when the Kurdish peshmerga joined the anti-Saddam coalition, advancing south and capturing Kirkuk and Mosul. They later withdrew from Mosul city, though not from much of the province around it, but never from Kirkuk and its oil fields.

Among the issues brought into play by the referendum is not only the right to independence of Iraqi Kurdistan but the territorial extent of that entity, which contains many disputed areas, many inhabited by both Kurds and Arabs as well as other minorities such as the Yazidis and Christians. This has always been a combustible issue, particularly in Kirkuk because of its oil fields and its ethnic diversity. Kirkuk city has large and potentially restive Arab and Turkmen communities and there are signs that the furore over the referendum is raising the political temperature. The Baghdad central government has dismissed the powerful Kurdish governor of Kirkuk, Najmaldin Karim, but he remains in office. On Monday night, gunmen on motorcycles opened fire on the office of a Turkmen political party and one of them was killed and two wounded when the guards shot back. Some hours later, a police patrol including the brother of the dead man attacked another Turkmen office. These were small scale skirmishes but they could escalate, particularly if the Shia militias move into Kurdish held areas.


It is not only Kirkuk city that is contested. The KRG took advantage of the defeat of the Iraqi army in northern Iraq and the capture of Mosul by Isis to expand its territory by 40 per cent, taking over disputed areas. The Kurds were always going to have difficulty clinging onto these lands, once Isis was defeated by a rejuvenated Iraqi army backed by the US. The disputed territories issue was already becoming more contentious after the Iraqi armed forces recaptured Mosul in July and the defeat of Isis ceased to dominate Iraqi political priorities. Baghdad has now declared the referendum illegal and made vague threats of military action, which the Kurds are ignoring or treating with contempt. A danger here is that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi may feel that he must do something to confront Kurdish actions or lose the political benefits of victory over Isis.

Mr Barzani says that after an overwhelming “yes” vote in the referendum next week, nothing dramatic will happen but rather a slow and amicable divorce between the Kurds and the Iraqi central government. This might happen, but northern Iraq is the site of so many ethnic, sectarian, territorial and international disputes that it is difficult to see them all being resolved or bypassed without violence.

(Republished from The Independent by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Iraq, ISIS, Kurds 
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  1. Barzani is right. If the Kurds don’t push for independence today, when Iraq and Syria are both weak, and Turkey and Iran are internationally-isolated, a sovereign Kurdistan will never come into existence.

    • Replies: @Moi
    , @George
  2. szopen says:

    hmmm… Which brings back the old question: why Kosovo had right to be independent, but Kurdistan, Catalania has not?

  3. Chiron says:

    The reason Kurdistan is happening and why Kurdish separatists get positive media in the West is because it’s what our Zionist Elite wants, the total destruction of Middle-East with the exception of Israel.

    Kurds participated in the Armenian Genocide on the Turks side, and to accomplish Kurdistan ithere will much more ethnic cleansing but this time cheered on by our Zionist media and Deep State.

    • Agree: Moi
  4. anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    The people of the region NEVER allow a Second Israel be erected by the axis of evil US-Israel-Britain in our region. You are lying when you say :

    “Why World Powers Fear the Kurdish Referendum”

    The world power actually wage these war to erect ‘kurdistan’ for their interest and against the interest of the people in the region. You government, US-Israel have created destabilization using their terrorists, including the traitor kurds, to create chaos. The Kurds have been spying for Israel for the last 60 years and are actively working with US-Israel-Britain to partition the regional countries to implement ODED YINON. Why don’t you talk about the facts on the ground?

    You are not honest. We are not dumb like your ‘leaders’.

    You are lying to the world when saying “World Powers Fear the Kurdish Referendum”, this is NOT TRUE, IT IS A LIE AND YOU KNOW IT.

    All these wars waged for this purpose, to change the map, according to Oded Yinon, and then you are trying to deceive the world by this kind of argument and paint the terrorist kurds as victims. NO, they are victims of their own cleverness.

    First YOU, the vicious West invading Iraq based on LIES to establish ‘federalism’, to save YOUR PAWNS, the Kurds, then CIA, MI6, Mossad training Kurds and terrorists including ISIS, to capture lands that is NOT theirs and the West wants, to transfer it to the TRAITOR KURDS.

    Now even ‘federalism’ is not enough and YOU are promoting partition by writing lie after lie to heop your pawns, the Kurds for the interest of the zionists and criminal west. WE NEVER ALLOW THAT, and from now on we will expose all of your lies.

    Look at the south Sudan, where zionist jews and criminal west partitioned from Sudan based on PROPAGANDA, because Sudan was the biggest country in Africa with resources. Aren’t you ASHAMED OF YOURSELF.

    Look at South Sudan now. Every women up to 80 year old has been raped, majority of people have been escaped, but the criminal mossad pose as ‘businessmen’ occupy the land and west is robbing them, like in north of Iraq. Occupied Palestine is not enough for the criminal west?

    Why don’t you write articles in support of Catalan, that is democratic, RICH and artistic They want to be seprated from Spain. Why don’t you write your essays in support of that. You cannot because it is not in YOUR government agenda and the world power.

    Why don’t you write about Palestinians to get their stolen country back where YOUR government gave it to ziofascists. YOU have a responsibility. Why do you need to serve the interest of the criminals?

    Amidst Universal Opposition to KRG Referendum, Israel Stands by Kurds

    Please read the articles by Sarah Abed:

    In fact, much if not all of the land in Eastern Turkey that the Kurds claim as their own once belonged to the Armenians. It is hardly surprising, then, that the Kurds assisted in the Turkish genocide of Assyrians and the 1915 genocide of Armenians.

  5. DFH says:

    The Kurds have a right to a country, whether or not it’s good for Israel

  6. Moi says:
    @Johann Ricke

    I am in favor of a sovereign Palestine in Mandate Palestine.

    “Turkey and Iran are internationally-isolated…” You don’t say!

    • Replies: @Johann Ricke
  7. wootendw says:

    The Kurds are nomadic Iranians. As nomads, they have never had a state and do not need one. If they want to be citizens of a state, they should become citizens of the whatever country they want to become citizens of – Turkey, Iran, Syria, Iraq, etc, – and follow its laws.
    What Kurds probably need is some kind of international legal designation/protection if the want to pursue their nomadic ways. There’s nothing wrong with being nomadic. A nomad does not have to a goat herder – he could have a technical career that takes him to different nations.

  8. @Moi

    I am in favor of a sovereign Palestine in Mandate Palestine.

    As with the Kurds’ hopes for independence, it will come down to “you and what army?” With any luck, the Kurds will retain control of Kirkuk, just as Israel will eventually deport Gazans to Egypt and West Bankers to Jordan or Syria.

    • Replies: @wootendw
  9. wootendw says:
    @Johann Ricke

    “you and what army?”

    I don’t give a hoot about Iraq as it’s already been destroyed by the regime in Washington. I would, however, add that reports have it that 72% of females in the Kirkuk region have been mutilated via female circumcision. The number is much lower elsewhere in Iraq.

    Syria will regain its borders, however, and that will be good. The Kurds who are part of the SDF have started to side up with ISIS against the Syrian army instead of fighting them. They have also been conducting ethnic cleansing against Assyrian Christians. There are virtually no Kurds in Raqqa yet some people think the Kurds have a right to it. They don’t.

    When the Syrian was is ended, Kurdish troublemakers in Kirkuk bring in Turkey.

  10. Mr Karadaghi says that the Baghdad government …[denunciation of the referendum]… will inevitably produce violence and war. He believes that this overreaction … serves only to anger and provoke the Kurds….

    Mr Karadaghi would do well to “reflect” on his warning. Kurdish collusion with the West, its use of ISIS to clear large areas for Kurdish settlement and its observed collusion with ISIS near Deir Ez Zor, has angered and inflamed all 4 of KRG’s neighbors as well as Russia. When the US is forced to withdraw, the Kurds will be totally isolated and surrounded by enemies of their own creation. I once had some sympathy for the Kurds. Now I pray for the minority of Kurds who have attempted to be loyal citizens of the states in which they reside.

  11. George says:
    @Johann Ricke

    Syria now has a large veteran army with a functional air force. Lebanon also now has a large veteran military.

    Turkey, Iran, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon coordinating an attack on Kurdistan would seem to be overwhelming, Israeli history aside. Unlike the Israel case, Kurdistan will not have air superiority.

    Don’t be surprised if US/NATO backs down from a superpower conflict with Russia.

    The Kurds are now operating outside Kurdish areas, which is a sign of disaster for me.

    The Kurds claim to want an ethnostate, but their actions imply they want oil. I doubt they will survive as a petro state unless oil prices go back to $100.

  12. former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who demanded this week that the referendum be cancelled … said that “we will not allow the creation of a second Israel in northern Iraq”.

    To the ears of this plain old American, “a second Israel” sounds like fighting words … but not fighting words for us (USA). We (USA, Trump administration) had best steer clear of it, especially if that (steering clear of it) comes down to exiting the entire ME, including not only the first and the second but all the Israels.

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