The Kurds deserve their vote on independence
Upon observing the sacrifices they have made and the fight Iraq's Kurds have put up against the infamous Islamic State group, one cannot help but feel they deserve greater recognition on the world stage.
"We are fighting this war not just for the Kurdish nation, but for the whole world," Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers, manning the Bashiqa front-line against IS, told me when I visited them in the summer of 2016.
They insisted their fight was much bigger and more general than the protection of their own homeland. They are correct in light of the salient fact that IS has brought havoc and killed citizens from numerous countries worldwide, and will doubtlessly continue to do so if given the chance.
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Their fight hasn't been an easy one. One soldier, who had served as a Peshmerga for 25 years - before IS, the Peshmerga fought a guerrilla war against the ruthless regime of Saddam Hussein, which infamously used chemical weapons against the Kurds - had never sustained a permanent injury until this war, when he was shot in his right arm in a clash with IS. The bullet impacted on his bone, paralyzing him in that arm for life.
Another, much younger, Peshmerga soldier showed me IS propaganda clips on his phone - high definition images of his slain comrades in Kirkuk, which IS proudly - as is their wont - showed off in one of their infamously lurid and sadistic videos.
Understandably, he couldn't help but be visibly distraught, and maybe demoralised by those sickening scenes.
|The sympathy expressed towards the Kurds on the international stage has not translated into support for Kurdish independence and their current desire to hold a referendum|
These men, young and old alike, went months without pay and have even had to purchase their own guns and bulletproof vests. Some volunteers I met that day even had to borrow money to pay for their taxi ride to the front lines.
Approximately 1,600 Peshmerga have lost their lives in this war. Many more are wounded. The war has also taken a major toll on the economy, from the cost of fighting to the decline of tourists who fear the IS threat. Nevertheless, the region has persisted.
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Iraqi Kurdistan has approximately five million inhabitants. The population has seen a dramatic increase in the past three years as a result of the IS war; 1.8 million Iraqi Arabs have sought shelter here, alongside approximately 250,000 refugees from neighbouring Syria.
This is a huge figure considering the relatively small size of the autonomous region, compared with its regional neighbours.
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Despite the vicious wars between the Kurds and the Iraqi state in the past there is no serious animosity between the Kurds of the region and the hundreds of thousands of Arab Iraqis who have sought sanctuary here. This is a dire contrast to Europe, where anti-refugee sentiment has given a boost to right-wing political parties across the continent following the large influx of Syrian refugees there back in late 2015.
Kurdistan's population is overwhelmingly Muslim, yet minorities living in the region practice their religions and customs unmolested. It is a state of affairs in which most Kurds, quite rightfully, take pride.
International political leaders pay lip service to the Kurds and their sacrifices. The multinational United States-led military coalition that has been bombing IS for more than three years now owes many of its battlefield successes to the sacrifices made by the Kurds on the ground.
However, the sympathy expressed towards the Kurds on the international stage has not translated into support for Kurdish independence and their current desire to hold a referendum. This is because the international community is committed to upholding a "One Iraq" status quo they believe could be irreparably damaged by a Kurdish drive for independence.
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Whether valid or not, this should not discourage the international community from elevating their recognition of the Kurds as a distinct people, culture and nation.
In doing they could still stress that the question of independence is, and should remain, an internal matter to be decided through negotiation between the Iraqi government and the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil - and should be unapologetic when it comes to recognising Kurdistan, even in its current autonomous status, as a distinct polity on the world stage.
Barham Salih, a Kurdish politician who has favoured the continued unity of the Iraqi state, has said every time he passes or visits the United Nations it "pains" him not to see the Kurdish flag flying alongside all the other flags there. This is understandable.
In light of the numerous atrocities levelled against them in the past throughout their struggle for the most fundamental rights and their fight against IS today, it is high time the Kurds received greater recognition on the world stage. They have demonstrably shown that they have earned it.
Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, where he writes about Middle East affairs.
Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.