Is Iraqi Kurdistan about to declare independence from Baghdad?

Is Iraqi Kurdistan about to declare independence from Baghdad?
Most but not all political forces of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan region are preparing to hold a referendum on independence next year, but many challenges could hinder their bid.
4 min read
29 December, 2015
Could the flag of Iraqi Kurdistan region become the flag of an independent state? [AFP]
The Regional Government of Iraqi Kurdistan (KRG) is seeking to establish a de-facto Kurdish state with international support, in preparation for a referendum on independence next year.

The KRG is already demarcating the borders of the planned state, to which it is adding territories seized from the Islamic State (IS) in the course of the war against the radical jihadist group in Iraq.

A well-placed Kurdish source, speaking to The New Arab's Arabic service on condition of anonymity, said the KRG has hired British, French and US engineers to oversee border demarcation operations, complete with trenches to be dug along the Kurdish state's borders.

More than 100 km-long stretches of the trench have already been dug, said the source, beginning with the Khanaqin district 175 km north of Baghdad along the Iranian border, and terminating in the Rabia district in Nineveh 520 km north of Baghdad along the border with Syria.
Kurdish sources say the KRG is already demarcating its borders and digging trenches in preparation for declaring independence next year

The putative border with Iraq will be roughly 400-km long, while the trench will have a depth of three meters and will be controlled using state-of-the-art surveillance technology.

Referendum in 2016

The semi-autonomous Kurdistan region will hold a referendum on full independence from Iraq in 2016, said Ali Awni of the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Awni said the president of the KRG Masoud Barzani recommended the move in a recent meeting of the party, pointing out that the KRG has almost completed the final touches for the referendum plan.

Awni said Barzani has been lobbying for support for Kurdish independence from Iraq during his visits to the US and European capitals. 

"We will not withdraw from territories we have been able to recapture, given our blood sacrifices," Awni said, in reference to areas seized from IS in recent battles.
Kurdish forces are already deployed in 90 percent of the territories claimed by Kurdish political parties as part of Kurdistan

According to estimates by KRG officials, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces are now in control of roughly 90 percent of the territories claimed by the Kurdish parties. The remaining 10 percent is currently held by IS.

Obstacles and challenges

Several challenges may hinder the independence of the KRG, led by the economic crisis on the back of falling oil prices and the war with IS, but also internal and regional pressures.

"Nevertheless, there is an important opportunity amid the current crises, and it must be exploited," said the Kurdish politician.

Awni pointed out that some Kurdish parties are opposed to independence, citing the Movement for Change led by Nawshirwan Mustafa, former aide to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

On Thursday, a statement from the Kurdish president's office said there would be a dialogue launched in early 2016 among Kurdish parties. It did not state what the purpose of the dialogue would be, but sources say the focus will be on unifying Kurdish forces behind a referendum.

Regional objections

The governments of the four nations that incorporate parts of historical Kurdistan have opposed any attempts to establish a Kurdish state in the region.

However, profound political and military changes in the region, in addition to Turkey's engagement with the Kurdish question have created favourable conditions.

Turkey maintains strong ties with the KRG, and seems to prefer it to the Iranian-dominated central government in Baghdad.

Turkey has been coy about the prospect of KRG independence. While it has officially stressed the territorial integrity of Iraq, Turkish officials have previously made remarks that suggested Ankara could tolerate an independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq.

For their part, Damascus and Tehran, as well as Baghdad, remain strongly opposed to KRG independence.

Kurdish factions in Syria, propelled by their military gains against IS, are also pondering some form of autonomy or independence. 

Meanwhile, Iran seems to be putting pressure in the direction of hindering Kurdish independence in cooperation with the government in Baghdad.

Sykes-Picot centenary

Some Kurdish observers say that Kurdish independence in Iraq could be declared close to May 2016, the 100-year anniversary of the Sykes-Picot agreement, in which British and French colonial powers divided the region.

The agreement divided historical Kurdistan among four states, Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.

The Sykes-Picot agreement is set to expire a hundred years after it was signed, the observers say.