The Kurdistan Regional Government's call for a referendum on whether to secede from Iraq this September looks like a decision taken in haste. The KRG's decision to hold a referendum in this climate might actually kill its dream of independence.
Earlier this month, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that rules from the Iraqi city of Erbil announced that it would be holding an independence referendum, in what Kurdish quarters have hailed as the realisation of a long-held Kurdish dream. The Kurds will embark on a bid to stake out territory they claim is theirs, carving off large swaths of northern Iraq in the process.
Despite Kurdish optimism, however, it is likely that this rash push for independence at a time of great regional instability is doomed to failure.
Kurdish rights in Iraq
Kurdish political groups have long argued that the Kurds have a right to self-determination, enshrined under international law as a fundamental right. According to these arguments, the Kurds have suffered under British imperial ambitions and various Iraqi regimes since modern Iraq was created in 1920, and they now want to strike out their own path and go it alone.
However, their arguments of "self-determination" – citing abuses and atrocities committed against the Kurdish people – lose weight when juxtaposed by Kurdish actions in Iraq. Not only were the Kurds militant from the get-go in Iraq, but they also worked with foreign powers to undermine the state and give no opportunity for peace.
Unlike Iran, Syria, and Turkey to an extent – all of whom have significant Kurdish populations – Iraq was historically far more open-handed towards their Kurdish minority. As the eminent Middle East scholar Edmund Ghareeb revealed in his book "The Kurdish Question in Iraq", for almost a decade starting from 1969, the Iraqi government was the first to recognise a number of Kurdish rights and aspirations.
Under the leadership of Saddam Hussein – who was in de facto control at the time – the Kurdish new year, Nowruz, was recognised as a national Iraqi holiday; the Kurdish language was to be taught in all schools and universities; a large portion of Nineveh governorate was carved out to form the Dohuk governorate (a long-held Kurdish demand); and Kurdish books and publications were allowed to be publicly printed for the first time.
As a sign of how ahead of the times Iraq was in terms of Kurdish minority rights, many of the rights enjoyed by Kurds in Iraq simply do not exist under the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad to this day, nor under the mullah regime in Iran. In fact, many of these rights did not exist in Turkey until the governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power and outstretched a hand of peace and brotherhood to the Kurds.
Kurdish crimes against Iraq
Iraq's reward, however, was continued belligerence, violence and terrorism. In particular, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) under Mustafa Barzani began to accept increasing amounts of military and financial support from Iran, then under the Shah who ruled Iran from 1941 until he was overthrown by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979. Kurdish militants began a campaign of deadly violence against the Iraqi authorities and wreaked havoc across the north of the country, shattering lives and livelihoods.
It was not until Baghdad signed the 1975 Algiers Accord with Iran over control of the strategic Shatt al-Arab waterway that Iran ceased its support for the Kurdish extremists. By that point, thousands had died needlessly, and the outstretched Iraqi hand of peace was cut off at the wrist by factions who were working against the national security, peace and stability of Iraq.
For their part, the Kurdish people have suffered grievously, which further fuelled sentiments for independence. In response to an insurrection led by armed Kurdish factions aligned with Tehran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, the Baghdad authorities' response was brutal. The Anfal military campaign, which was launched justifiably against insurgents threatening the Iraqi interior, often used horrific and unjustifiable means.
Human Rights Watch documented Baathist Popular Army's – a paramilitary force distinct from the Iraqi Army – numerous atrocities against Kurdish civilians. In particular, men and boys of fighting age were dragged off to numerous prison camps, including the infamous Topzawa prison, where males of "fighting age" were routinely beaten, tortured and even executed.
However, and even after the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime, Kurdish factions who now hold the reins of power have continued to harbour racial and ethnic hatred against not only Arabs, but Iraqi Turkmens, failing to distinguish between crimes committed by the former republic and ordinary people.
Using the war against the so-called Islamic State (Daesh) as an excuse, the Kurds committed an ethnic cleansing campaign in 2015 in the northern district of Makhmour, and are now refusing to allow the Sunni Arab residents back to their ancestral homes. Amnesty International also reported Yazidis – who are often considered Kurds – committing revenge attacks, executing Arab men, women and children in Sinjar. In apparent revenge for IS' sexual enslavement of Yazidi women, Yazidi terrorists abducted 40 Arab women.
The Turkmens of Iraq have been relentlessly hounded by the Kurdish authorities who seemingly aim to force them out of areas they wish to homogenise as "Kurd only" zones. Just recently in the disputed territory of Kirkuk, Human Rights Watch reported Kurdish forces expelling Turkmens and leaving them at the mercy of sectarian Shia militias.
All of these crimes not only impact Iraqi communities, but key nations in the region, without whom the dream of an independent Kurdistan will wither and die. Turkey, for instance, has already declared that it opposes Kurdish independence. It is also likely to be far from impressed by Kurdish atrocities and violence against Turkmens, with whom they share bonds of kinship.
The KRG is banking on the fact that oil it pumps unilaterally from Iraq is being exported via Turkey's Ceyhan port, providing both parties with an interest in maintaining their good relations. However, the KRG has announced that the multi-ethnic governorate of Kirkuk – with a large Turkmen population – will be included in the referendum, as well as Sinjar and Makhmour.
All of these territories are not under the KRG's legal authority, yet the Kurdish authorities are trying to bludgeon their will onto the region's people without a care for the firestorm it could trigger. The region is unstable enough already, without adding delusional and deadly land grabs to the mix, so it is hoped that Kurdish independence will not go ahead anytime soon, risking hundreds of thousands of lives needlessly.
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