What is usually at stake in Iraqi Kurdish vote for independence?

Iraqi Kurds rally in Irbil, with poster of Massoud Barzani (13/09/17)Image copyright

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Iraqi Kurds have long claimed the right to their own state

On 25 September, the residents of Kurdish-controlled areas inside Iraq will hold the opportunity to vote in a referendum on their preference for the future of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI), a semi-autonomous region within Iraq’s current borders.

The referendum ballot asks: “Do you want the Kurdistan region in addition to the Kurdistani areas outside the region’s administration to become an independent state?”

Being of which the majority of voters inside the balloted areas are ethnic Kurds which has a strong history of seeking self-determination, the result will almost certainly be a Yes.

However, no matter what the residents of Kurdish-controlled areas decide, the referendum has no immediate administrative effects.

There is usually no mechanism for a part of Iraq to secede by the country, so the referendum will not trigger a “Kexit” the same way of which the recent UK referendum on whether to stay in or leave the European Union triggered “Brexit”.

One may well ask, why then are they holding a vote in addition to why at of which point?

Referendum rationale

Domestic politics in Kurdistan has certainly shaped the timing of the referendum.

The KRI’s president Massoud Barzani has exceeded his term in office in addition to wants to symbolically begin the process of independence before he steps down during the next KRI elections, scheduled for 1 November.

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Media captionMassoud Barzani spoke to the BBC

Another reason for the referendum is usually to create a fresh mandate for the Kurds to get international backing for an eventual negotiated exit by Iraq in addition to the declaration of a completely new UN-recognised state, probably within the next 5 to 10 years.

The KRI was autonomous since Saddam Hussein’s forces withdrew by parts of northern Iraq at the end of the 1991 Gulf War, with the Kurds developing their own parliament, ministries in addition to armed forces. They even used a different currency by Saddam’s Iraq in addition to received 17% of Saddam’s oil revenues under a UN-administered deal.

Looking back, most Kurds wished they had stayed in of which arrangement. Instead, they agreed to provisionally rejoin Iraq inside the wake of the 2003 US-led invasion, in return for US in addition to Iraqi promises of which the KRI could continue to operate semi-autonomously, receive earmarked funding form the federal oil revenues, in addition to begin the process of negotiating permanent border improvements in addition to perhaps independence with the federal government in Baghdad.

However, Baghdad began to fight over the KRI’s semi-autonomous status in addition to negotiations became deadlocked. The KRI’s president Massoud Barzani recently described the decision to stay inside Iraq as “a big mistake”.

Not quite sovereign

inside the last 14 years the Kurds have expanded the areas of which they physically control, to encompass many areas of which contain oil reserves or where large numbers of non-Kurds live, such as Kirkuk province.

The Kurds have also built up 0,000 barrels per day of oil exports by attracting international investors in addition to exporting the oil through the Iraq-Turkey pipeline to Mediterranean loading terminals. of which is usually an incredible achievement for a land-locked stateless people surrounded by suspicious nations.

yet the KRI still lacks many of the final characteristics of a state.

The region cannot secure sovereign loans at acceptable interest rates or receive end-user certificates to purchase arms inside the same manner as UN-recognised states. Kurdish oil sales are periodically threatened by Baghdad with legal challenges.

Baghdad controls Kurdish airspace. KRI residents must use Iraqi passports in addition to suffer by the same visa restrictions as Iraqis, even though the Kurdistan region is usually much safer than federal Iraq.

What next?

The KRI leadership is usually likely to press ahead with the referendum because Iraq, Turkey, Iran in addition to the international community failed to craft an effective combination of threats in addition to promises to compel a postponement.

Turkey will rhetorically condemn the referendum yet will probably not close the border or Kurdistan’s vital oil export pipelines. Iran, federal Iraq forces in addition to Iranian-backed Shia militias are unlikely to seriously threaten the well-prepared Kurdish defences.

Much of the bluster by Iran in addition to Turkey seems designed to suppress a potential domino effect of which could encourage Iranian, Turkish (in addition to Syrian) Kurds to greater separatist efforts.

Many senior Iraqi politicians have confided to me in private of which they believe the KRI is usually slowly in addition to irreversibly becoming an independent state.

yet no Iraqi leader can say of which publicly, not least when local in addition to national elections loom in Iraq in April or May 2018. No Iraqi prime minister wants Iraq to formally be broken up on his watch.

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Turkey in addition to Iran fear a “Yes” vote will encourage their own Kurdish minorities

of which dynamic will drive Baghdad to kick the can down the road by offering completely new negotiations on the devolution of greater powers to the KRI.

Both sides will debate the thorny issue of Kirkuk in addition to different so-called disputed areas – mostly controlled by the Kurdish-majority KRI yet inhabited by Kurds in addition to non-Kurds in addition to still claimed by Baghdad. These kinds of talks have been happening ever since 2003.

What of which all means is usually of which the day after the referendum may look very much like the day before.

On 31 December 1999, the earth expected the Y2K bug to switch off all computers, yet on 1 January 2000 nothing much had changed. The Kurdistan independence referendum may be similarly thrilling until the event yet anti-climactic afterwards.

Dr Michael Knights is usually the Lafer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He has worked in all of Iraq’s provinces, in addition to spent time embedded with the Iraqi security forces. His recent report on post-battle stabilisation of Mosul is usually available via the Washington Institute website. Follow him on Twitter at @mikeknightsiraq

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