Why Iraq's Kurds are eagerly pushing ahead with independence referendum

Why Iraq's Kurds are eagerly pushing ahead with independence referendum
Analysis: Kurdish leaders fear losing political leverage once Peshmerga fighters are no longer desperately needed in the fight against the Islamic State group, reports Paul Iddon.
4 min read
11 September, 2017
Kurdish leaders are adamant that the ballot will be held on September 25 [AFP]
Masoud Barzani, president of Iraq's Kurdistan region, worries the international community will rely less on Iraqi Kurdish fighters now the Islamic State group is in retreat - and will therefore be much less sympathetic to the region's bid to hold its referendum on independence later this month.

In the summer of 2014, when IS seized Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, the Iraqi army made its infamous withdrawal from the north and left Iraqi Kurdistan to fend for itself with its Peshmerga forces. 

Barzani deemed Iraq a failure, and resolved to push for an independence referendum. At that time Nouri al-Maliki was prime minister of Iraq. Maliki opposed Barzani, and had tried to place the Peshmerga under central Iraqi government command and control, sending the Iraqi army to Kurdistan's frontiers - leading to tense standoffs with the Peshmerga - and cutting Kurdistan's 17 percent constitutional share of Iraq's budget just months before IS attacked. 

When IS did attack, the troops deployed by Maliki failed to defend Kurdistan. Had Maliki succeeded in taking control of the Peshmerga the region may well have fallen under an unimaginably brutal IS occupation

And when IS did attack, the troops deployed by Maliki failed to defend Kurdistan. Had Maliki succeeded in taking control of the Peshmerga the region may well have fallen under an unimaginably brutal IS occupation. 

Maliki was soon succeeded by the more moderate Haider al-Abadi. Kurdistan, facing serious economic crisis and a 1,000km front line against IS, ultimately shelved referendum plans in 2014. Talk resumed of holding a referendum in 2016, before the conclusion of the US presidential election. 

This too was postponed, likely as a result of the Mosul operation which began in October 2016 and was made possible by the Peshmerga securing territory from IS - allowing the Iraqi army to mass its forces outside the IS stronghold. 

Now the Kurdish leadership is adamant that it will hold the referendum this month, setting a precise date - September 25.

Between 2003 and 2014 Barzani supported the idea of Kurdistan remaining a part of a federal Iraq, even if he only paid lip-service to the idea. The Iraqi constitution was drafted, supposedly resolving the status of territories disputed between Baghdad and Erbil under Article 140, which was never implemented.

Barzani asserts that: "Iraq violated the fire of Constitution which we voted for. Federalism has failed. No option except independence." 

Retrospectively, Barzani places the blame for the latest drive for independence squarely on Maliki's shoulders, for his divisive policies towards the Kurds and the Sunnis. 

The international community opposes Kurdistan's desire to separate from Iraq. While the referendum will not result in an immediate secession from Iraq, a yes vote would certainly be a first step in that direction and would give Kurdish leaders more leverage over Baghdad in negotiating what they call an "amicable divorce".

The United States has urged the Kurds to at least postpone the referendum, arguing it's a bad time to hold such a vote while the remnants of IS are being removed from Iraq. The Kurds counter by insisting that military cooperation with Baghdad and Washington against IS will not be affected by the referendum

For many Kurds the idea that a referendum on their independence is being held too soon is risible. They argue they forewent their chances in 1991, following Saddam's military defeat in the first Gulf War, and in 2003, when they decided to invest their efforts in trying to make post-Saddam Iraq succeed. Some also go so far as arguing that they missed their initial chance a hundred years ago when the Ottoman Empire collapsed and the British and French carved up the region.

Another more immediate reason that, in Barzani's words, the Kurds won't hold the referendum an hour earlier or later than September 25 is due to their concern that, after their usefulness in the IS fight evaporates with the militant group's looming defeat they will have much less leverage. 


Dr Dlawwe Ala-Aldeen, an academic and president of the Middle East Research Institute (MERI) in Iraqi Kurdistan, said as much to the Kurdish Rudaw news network in a recent interview

"Time is passing quickly and it is likely that the current love and international support for the Peshmerga forces might change," he said. 

"The question of the referendum showed that most countries are more pro-Iraq and more committed to the integrity of Iraq," Ala-Aldeen added. "They might distance themselves from the region after IS is defeated, and neglect the wishes and concerns of the Kurdistan region, just like they did before the emergence of IS."

President Barzani clearly has a similar fear in mind:

"Our conviction is that after the war against IS, the interest, the opportunity [for independence] will also disappear," he said. "We are a little late, too. We, the people of Kurdistan, should have made this decision earlier.

"I wish we did it two years ago. It would have been much easier."

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon