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Kurdish separatism 're-energised' in Iraq as independence referendum looms

President of Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (IKRG) Masoud Barzani (R) in Erbil, Iraq on 4 April 2017 [Yunus Keleş/Anadolu Agency]
President of Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government (IKRG) Masoud Barzani (R) in Erbil, Iraq on 4 April 2017 [Yunus Keleş/Anadolu Agency]

Iraq's Kurds plan to hold a referendum on independence this year to press their case for "the best deal" on self-determination once Daesh is defeated, a senior Kurdish official said.

The Kurds already run their own autonomous region in northern Iraq under the aegis of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the official, former Iraqi foreign and finance minister Hoshiyar Zebari, indicated the expected 'yes' outcome in a vote wouldn't mean automatically declaring independence.

Iraq's Finance Minister Hoshiyar Zebari speaks during a news conference in Baghdad 21 January 2016.

Iraq's Finance Minister Hoshiyar Zebari speaks during a news conference in Baghdad 21 January 2016. [REUTERS/Khalid Al-Mousily]

But with Kurdish forces also controlling wider territory regained from Daesh and formerly held by the Baghdad government, the referendum plan adds to questions about Iraq's unity after the militants have been ousted from Mosul.

The two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), agreed at a meeting on Sunday that a referendum should be held this year, Zebari, a senior member of the KDP leadership, told Reuters.

Read: Kirkuk Council discusses raising Kurdish flag

"The idea of a referendum has been re-energised," Zebari said in an interview in Erbil last night, commenting on the meeting held with the PUK's leadership.

The Kurds played a major role in the US and Iran-backed campaign to defeat Daesh, the ultra-hardline group that overran about a third of Iraq nearly three years ago. The militants are now fighting off Iraqi forces in Mosul, their last major city stronghold in Iraq from where they declared a "caliphate" that also includes parts of Syria.

While the fall of Mosul would effectively end the "caliphate", it will not solve deep divisions over power, land and resources between Iraq's Shia community, and the important Sunni Arab and Sunni Kurdish communities.

The two rival Kurdish groups issued a joint statement on Sunday declaring support for the plan of holding a referendum, leaving its exact timing to an agreement with other, smaller Kurdish groups.

Zebari described the aim as "self-determination", leaving open the exact nature of any deal with Baghdad following the referendum when Kurds would be likely to vote strongly for independence.

"It will give a strong mandate to the Kurdish leadership to engage in talks with Baghdad and the neighbours in order to get the best deal for Kurdish self-determination," he said.

Iraqi Kurdish independence has been historically opposed by Iraq and also its neighbours, Iran, Turkey and Syria, as they fear the contagion for their own Kurdish populations would spread, causing further divisions and creating new states in a region already heavily divided by western colonial powers in the wake of World War I.

Shia jihadists threaten to cast out Kurds

Iraq's Kurds are the community to have advanced the most toward their long-held dream of independence, while their brethren in other countries have lagged, particularly in Iran where they are brutally suppressed by the Iranian regime. Iraq has been led by the Shia since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, a secular nationalist, in 2003, following an illegal US-led invasion.

They run their own affairs in the north through the KRG led by KDP leader Massoud Barzani, whose presidential term ended years ago but remains in power.

They have their own armed militia, the Peshmerga, which prevented in 2014 Daesh from capturing the oil region of Kirkuk, after the Iraqi army fled in the face of the militants.

The Kurds make historical claims over Kirkuk, which is also inhabited by Turkmens and Arabs. Hardline Iranian-backed Iraqi Shia jihadist militias have threatened to expel the Kurds by force from this region and other disputed areas.

Kirkuk's Kurdish-led provincial council rejected this week a resolution by the Iraqi parliament in Baghdad to lower KRG flags raised since last month next to Iraqi flags over public buildings of the region.

Turkey angered by separatists

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also warned the Kurds on Tuesday that failure to lower the Kurdish flags would damage their relations with Turkey.

The Turkish president told a rally in the Black Sea province of Zonguldak:

We don't agree with the claim 'Kirkuk is for the Kurds' at all. Kirkuk is for the Turkmen, Arabs and Kurds, if they are there. Do not enter into a claim that it's yours or the price will be heavy. You will harm dialogue with Turkey.

The KRG government rejected the Iraqi and Turkish demands, arguing that the Kurds' role in defending Kirkuk against Daesh justified the hoisting of their flag.

"If it wasn't for the Peshmerga, there would be neither Iraq's flag in the city nor Kurdistan's," KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani told reporters in Erbil on Wednesday.

Read: Turkmen boycott vote on referendum to annex Kirkuk to Kurdistan

Masrour Barzani, head of the KRG's Security Council and son of President Barzani, said in June that Iraq should be divided into three separate entities to prevent further sectarian bloodshed, with a state each given to the Shia, the Sunni Arabs and the Sunni Kurds.

The Shia community live mainly in the south, the Sunni Arabs and the Sunni Kurds are on opposite corners of the north while the central region around Baghdad and leading into western Iraq is predominantly Sunni Arab.

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