Why The Iraqi Kurdistan Referendum Wasn’t as Liberating as It Appeared

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I was in Iraqi Kurdistan during the two weeks leading up to the referendum, and here is what I must say.

Independence is the start of a long and delicate process, not a final step. It’s essential to care about independence, but it’s even more essential to wonder what sort of state will be created after this. Whether a region truly has the potential to create, organise and sustain stability, peace, and democracy; if not with its neighbours, then within its own territory is a fundamental requirement. The political situation within Kurdistan is not stable and is profoundly divided. The self-proclaimed leader of Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani, finished his mandate in 2013 and has since (illegally) found various ways to assert his power, mainly with the help of the Asayish forces that are well-known to care little about human rights and engage in the arresting, torturing and murdering of political opponents.

Whereas a Kurdish state is indeed, deserved and I would even say, owed after decades of oppression, mass killings and inflicted starvation, a Kurdish leader that represents his population and doesn’t care solely about his political and financial interests, is even more deserved. It’s legitimate to say that Massoud Barzani is not this leader.

To me, the referendum is nothing more than the use of a country’s history to legitimise and empower a corrupted, illegitimate and illegal government.

The 25th of September is indeed a historical day but, sadly, it’s yet another day in history where the Kurds didn’t get what they deserved. This ‘act of freedom’ had the ultimate purpose to negotiate a more advantageous relationship with Baghdad, to benefit once again the Kurdish political elite, not to create a country and bring freedom to the Kurds.

Credit: Emma Bihan-Poudec – ‘Pro-referendum ad’

Since the vote, international flights have stopped to and from the Kurdish region. The United States have ceased funding the salaries of the Peshmerga fighters battling Daesh and Turkey, alongside Iran, is backing the central government of Baghdad. Despite no significant move against the Kurdish region so far, the Turkish and Iranian governments keep threatening to close all borders around Kurdistan and interrupt oil trade.

This would result in an unprecedented strain on the Kurdish region that could tragically result in a similar situation to the 1990s’. Back then, the Iraqi government imposed sanctions on the Kurds while themselves being sanctioned by the international community after the Gulf War, leaving the population in great distress.

While neighbouring countries issue threats and call for the Kurdish authorities to surrender to the Iraqi central government’s sovereignty, the international community is, once again, failing to support the Kurds, turning a blind eye to the threats and opposing the referendum publicly.

Credit: Emma Bihan-Poudec – ‘Pro-Referendum ad, Duhok, Iraqi Kurdistan’

The attention is now focused on the region of Kirkuk, one of the main oil-field areas in Iraq. Here, Peshmerga fighters were sent in their thousands to face the Iraqi threat and defend its territory ‘at any cost’, the official Iraqi army being sent by Baghdad to retake control of the area, supported by the Iran backed-Shia paramilitary, Hashd Al-Shaabi. The Iraqi government have denied that an attack is underway, but gave 48 hours notice (Sunday 15th October, 2AM) to the Peshmerga to surrender their position.

According to Kurdistan24, on Friday, Kamal Kirkuki, Peshmerga Commander of the West Kirkuk Front, warned the Iraqi forces and Hashd al-Shaabi and stated:

we will teach those who attack us a lesson that they will never forget.

The future of Iraq and the possibility of a peaceful process relies on what happens in Kirkuk in these upcoming days.

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