Developing: Tension mounts as Kurds vote on independence

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Residents of Iraqi-Kurdistan are heading to the polls on Monday for an independence referendum organized by President Masoud Barzani and his Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).

Polling stations open their doors at 8:00 a.m. (1:00 a.m. ET) and the final results should be announced within 72 hours, with a “yes” result the likely outcome. [update: since this story was first published, the election results show that nearly 93 percent are in favour of independence.]

Though the vote is non-binding, meaning that it has no legal framework, it gives Iraqi-Kurds leverage to pursue independence.

The Kurds, who are mostly Sunni Muslims, do not have an official homeland but have a long history of trying to establish one in the Middle East. They live mainly in Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq, where they enjoy relative political autonomy.

The referendum has caused backlash and opposition from the central government in Baghdad and the international community.

Neighbouring tension

Turkey, Iran, and Iraq are against the referendum and have agreed to consider counter-measures if it goes through.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Ergodan warned of sanctions and military intervention. Turkish troops are currently carrying out military exercises near the border.

The KRG is one of Turkey’s firm allies, and pushing forward with the referendum will be a test of the KRG’s relationship with Ankara.

Erdogan also fears that if Iraqi Kurds gain independence, this will create a ripple effect in which Kurds in other parts of the Middle East, especially Turkey, will be further empowered in their ongoing fight for independence.

Both Turkey and Iraq agree that the referendum is unconstitutional; Turkey also said that the results will be “null and void.”

The central government of Baghdad is firmly against the potential partition of Iraq. The city of Kirkuk in Northern Iraq, where clashes have already occurred, is particularly contentious as it produces a quarter of the region’s oil. If independence is gained, Kirkuk will fall right between the two regions.

In further retaliation, Baghdad asked foreign countries to stop oil trade with the Kurdish region. On Sunday, it also asked KRG to hand over international borders and international airports.

On Monday, at the request of Baghdad, Iran closed its borders with the Kurdish region of Iraq. Both land crossings and airspace entry into Iran remain shut.

Heat from the West

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) warned that the referendum will have a “potentially destabilizing impact.”

In an effort to stop the referendum, the U.S. state department said that diplomatic aid for the Kurdish-Iraqi region could be cut off if voting goes ahead. The department said that while it respects the Kurds’ aspiration for independence, it sees it as untimely since the fight against the Islamic State (IS) is still ongoing. Kurdistan’s peshmerga fighters — meaning “those who face death” — have been helping the U.S. and are its most reliable ally.

Barzani, however, said that the referendum will not affect the fight against the Islamic State.

The U.S., though, faced a tricky situation when Paul Manafort, President Donald J. Trump’s former campaign manager, was hired to help with the Kurdish referendum. Manafort has had a lucrative career advising foreign clients and was hired “to assist in the referendum and in the aftermath of the referendum”, as reported by the New York Times.

Independence from Iraq

The Iraqi Kurds live in a semi-autonomous region where they have their own government, laws, language, and culture, but this wasn’t always the case.

Historical grievances resulting from a long and complicated history with Iraq fuels the fight for independence.

Kurdish people have suffered attacks from Iraqis under the presidency of Saddam Hussein in the late 1980s, which included chemical attacks, genocide, and mass displacements. They gained their semi-autonomous region after Saddam Hussein withdrew his forces at the end of the 1991 uprisings in Iraq.

President Masoud Barzani told the Guardian that Iraq is “a theocratic, sectarian state. We have our geography, land, and culture. We have our own language. We refuse to be subordinates.”


Israel is the only country that has come out strongly in favor of the vote. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the Kurdish referendum as “legitimate” and has even said he supports the establishment of a Kurdish state.

Though independence won’t be triggered if the majority vote is yes, it gives President Masoud Barzani a legitimate mandate for negotiating power with Baghdad.

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