In Kurdistan, an independence referendum has serious repercussions

The semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq is relatively prosperous and safe. But since the referendum on 25th September, it has been rocked by economic strife and violence

November 15, 2017
Pershmerga fighters. Photo:Amel Pain/EPA/Rex/Shutterstock
Pershmerga fighters. Photo:Amel Pain/EPA/Rex/Shutterstock

In the lanes of Erbil’s Qaysari bazaar, by the city’s ancient citadel, Ali Karim shares halva, a sesame sweet, as he discusses with his customers the fallout from Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence referendum. “The situation is not good at all. For three months there has been no money. How can we live? The US got rid of Saddam Hussein, but if you look at Baghdad now, we have 20 Saddams.”

The semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq is relatively prosperous and safe. But since the referendum on 25th September, it has been rocked by economic strife and violence. Outraged by the Kurdish authorities’ decision to hold the vote, Iraq retaliated. It closed the Kurdistan region’s two airports to international flights and pushed for control of border crossings with Syria and Turkey. It also began military operations to regain ground held by Kurdish Peshmerga troops since they halted Islamic State (IS) advances in 2014. That territory included the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, which Iraq retook from the Kurds on 16th October.

In Erbil, Kurdish sunburst flags dangle from street lamps. Iran and its influence on Baghdad are blamed for the referendum fallout, which outside Kurdistan is now viewed as overly-ambitious and ill-timed.

“Iran doesn’t like Iraq, it doesn’t like freedom, and it doesn’t like Sunnis,” Karim says, scooping raisins into a plastic bag. “IS has gone but now we have the Hashd al-Shaabi,” the Iran-backed Shiite militias of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), who have worked alongside the Iraqi Army during the recent military operations.

Tens of thousands of Kurds in the disputed areas have been displaced in the fighting, with allegations of widespread violence by the PMU. Peshmerga on front lines also curse Tehran’s influence in Iraq. They feel let down by the Iraqi Army’s collaboration with the PMU, which they feel replaces their once-close relationship with Iraqi troops.

“I am sad because of that,” said Peshmerga General Noor Aldeen Hussein, as he smoked in a sandbag outpost on the frontline against the PMU. “I know most of the [Iraqi] officers. They are my friends; we graduated from the same college. But they have no choice: they can’t control the Hashd, the Hashd is bigger than they are and the politicians are all with them.”

Fearful of its own restive Kurdish population, Iran would never allow Iraqi Kurdistan to become independent. Tehran’s backing of the PMU, and threats over trade, mean the Kurds’ 93 per cent “Yes” result could never lead to statehood. But Baghdad and its neighbours are not the only reasons for the instability currently threatening to engulf Iraqi Kurdistan. Intra-Kurdish divides have added to tensions. Erbil is a stronghold of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which spearheaded the latest push for independence. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is closer to Baghdad—Fuad Masum, President of Iraq, is a member—and has ties to Iran. The referendum’s negative fallout has been such that in late October, KDP leader Masoud Barzani announced his resignation as president of the Kurdistan region.

Barzani ploughed ahead with the independence referendum without foreign support, and failing to acknowledge the backlash that would follow. “Statehood was a big step that the leadership did not understand and was not prepared for,” said Kurdish analyst Diliman Abdulkader.

Kurdish authorities may well concede land they took in 2014. Recent military operations have tarnished the region’s reputation for safety and stability, and the Kurds may see the expanded territory as coming at a price they are not willing to pay. Erbil and Baghdad will have to agree on border crossings, revenue sharing and other differences. But for federal Iraq, the Kurds’ quest for independence is one headache of many. It still has to deal with IS, which lingers in small pockets. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for next year. Erbil’s attempt at independence left it isolated—now it might only be through external conciliation that it can maintain its semi-autonomy.