Iraq's Kurds want their independence. But winning it won't be easy

  • 23 Jun 2017

Domestic quarrels and fears of a fractured nation are formidable hurdles on the path to KRG self-rule.

The KRG President Massoud Barzani's decision to hold a referendum has widely been described as a decision taken in haste. ( TRT World and Agencies )

What does Massoud Barzani want?

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) announced that it would hold an independence referendum on September 25.

This isn't the first time that the prospect of independence has been raised by the KRG President Massoud Barzani. In 2014, he announced plans to hold an election. But these were put on hold after Daesh captured the city of Mosul in June 2014.

"I was born for the independence of Kurdistan," he told Foreign Policy. "I want to die in the shadow of the flag of an independent Kurdistan."

Erbil and Baghdad, the respective political capitals of the KRG and Iraq, had agreed that the defeat of Daesh was a priority.

​What is the KRG?

The KRG is an autonomous region that spans a predominantly-Kurdish area in Northern Iraq. It was established in 1992, but Iraq recognised it in 2005.

Under the Iraqi constitution, the KRG is defined as the authority that governs over the provinces of Erbil, Duhok and Sulaymaniyah.

However, it has de facto control over Kirkuk Province and some parts of Diyala and Nineveh. These areas also contain towns that are predominantly comprised of ethnic Kurds.

Will independence work?

​Barzani has said that "there is no going back. We are now really busy with making logistical preparations."

This time however, his move has been described as a decision taken in haste, or one directed against Iraq's central government.

"I personally think that he uses this as a way to hide deep-rooted problems" and as a trump card against Baghdad, Goktug Sonmez, a researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Strategic Studies (ORSAM), told TRT World.

Civilians flee heavy fighting in Mosul. Barzani "wants to take advantage of Baghdad's distraction and resource scarcity caused by the Mosul offensive in order to cover serious economic and political issues in KRG," Sonmez said. (TRT World and Agencies)

What's at stake?

The nation is struggling with an internal political crisis. Relations between the parties that make up the KRG have come under increasing strain over the presidency of Barzani, whose mandate actually expired in August 2015.

Jalal Talabani's political party Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Nawshirwan Mustafa's Movement for Change (Gorran) have said that the existing parliament needs to reopen before the referendum is carried out.

"Internally, the problem is with the divide between Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the other political parties," Sonmez said. A referendum might be possible, but he also added that it's neither realistic nor sustainable.

Since 2015, debates have continued as to whether Barzani's term should be extended further, with supporters citing the fight against Daesh and the need for stability as urgent priorities.

Gorran has demanded a reduction in the president's powers as a condition for extending Barzani's term. But the KDP has rejected that outright.

The crisis has exacerbated old divisions within the KRG. The autonomous region used to have two separate administrations, one based in Erbil and the other in Sulaymaniyah.

If KDP accepts the demand to reopen the parliament, "this would then require settling the presidential crisis which would mean KDP bending over for PUK and Gorran's demands which it has refrained from for several years now," said Sonmez.

But he added that it's not necessary because "it's quite risky for any political party not to support Barzani's decision considering its potential loss of electorate, prestige and trust in the future."

Iraq declared that all of Mosul was 'liberated' from Daesh on June 29. The push for the city's western section, separated from the east by the Tigris River, began in February. (TRT World and Agencies)

What will happen to areas under disputed control?

According to the Iraqi constitution, the KRG governs a territory that corresponds to approximately 10 percent of Iraq's total area. But in practice, it also controls another seven percent.

These de facto KRG territories include geopolitically strategic cities such as Kirkuk and parts of the Mosul countryside.

Mosul is a major Iraqi city. Its population consists of a mix of several ethnic groups with the majority of Sunni Arabs and Kurds.

The city is strategically important because it is the main industrial centre in Iraq and a vital transportation hub. It also sits astride significant oilfields in northern Iraq and a major oil pipeline into Turkey.

Kirkuk also has a strategic importance thanks to its big oil reserves. Its reserves account for 600,000 barrels of Iraq's 3.7 million barrels annual oil exports.

The presence of the oil industry had an effect on the city's demographics. Kirkuk had been a predominantly Turkmen city, but since the oil exploitation began in the 1930s, it attracted Arabs and Kurds.

According to the 1957 census, Kirkuk city was 37.63 percent Iraqi Turkmen, 33.26 percent Kurdish with Arabs and Assyrians making up less than 23 percent of its population. (TRT World and Agencies)

Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein drove Kurds out of Kirkuk and replaced them with Iraqi Arabs, as part of his policy of Arabisation.

After he was deposed in 2003 following the US invasion of Iraq, the KRG gained partial control of the city. Kirkuk became a key card in KRG's bid to establish an independent state.

A referendum on whether Kirkuk province should become part of the KRG was scheduled for November 2007, but has been repeatedly delayed.

Since Iraqi Kurds' armed forces, peshmerga, prevented Daesh from capturing Kirkuk in 2014, the KRG is pushing for the reversal of Saddam's Arabisation of the city.

From that time, the KRG began to populate the area with Kurds who might in future vote in favour of the KRG's involvement in the city's administration.

Last March, Barzani decided to plant KRG flags in Kirkuk, as a first move of solidarity over independence claims. (AFP)

"The KRG might choose not to carry out referendum in the ‘disputed territories' despite statements that it will." said Sonmez. The slated referendum was noted in Iraq's constitution. The September vote however, may be legally binding.

"This would be the first challenge to official ownership of Iraq over the city," he continued.

Why is Baghdad's government against KRG independence?

The Iraqi government announced that it would reject any move by Kurdish regional authorities to press for independence.

"No party can on its own decide the fate of Iraq, in isolation from the other parties," spokesperson Saad al-Haddithi, said in a statement.

The KRG's independence would deal a major blow to Iraq's territorial integrity, Sonmez said. Baghdad cares about this because "its statehood and monopoly of power is already contested by a lot of non-state actors." The move could lead to a fracturing of Iraq along sectarian lines.

Despite that, Baghdad is not fully able to defy Erbil's decision to secede, given its weak central government.

What is the international community's stance?

The decision has received minimal support in the international arena.

The US, the UK, Turkey and Iran have announced that they are opposing the vote. Last month, the EU also released a statement discouraging the KRG from actualizing its decision.

However, this hasn't swayed KRG leaders from taking action. They said the vote will not create an independent state but rather determine if public wants the breakup of Iraq.

Turkey is the KRG's number one economic partner. (TRT World and Agencies)

Turkey enjoys close relations and extensive economic co-operation with the KRG. But Turkey sees possible risks for the Turkmens, a group with whom it has close historical ties, in areas of uncertain status such as Kirkuk.

Turkey's second concern is "any possible expansion of KRG into Kirkuk and Mosul, which are both within the Kurdish historical dream and political and military goal of having a state merging ‘four parts of Kurdistan'," Sonmez said.

Iran says it supports Iraq's territorial integrity. "For Iran, having an Iraq that is under its political, economic and military influence is better than taking the risk of triggering a mass Kurdish movement in its own country to achieve a particular portion of Iraq as a new Shia state," Sonmez said.

Iran already enjoys good relations with the PUK in Sulaymaniyah, which neighbours Iran to the west.

And the US State Department said it is concerned that the referendum might distract the nation from "more urgent priorities" such as the defeat of Daesh. But Daesh is not the only reason, said Sonmez.

"The independence of KRG might trigger the process to a Shia state in southern Iraq, and that might mean a much more powerful Iran in the Middle East."

Author: Zeynep Sahin