September 26, 2017

For the past few decades, Iraq’s Kurds have maintained a fragile but steady state within a state. Iraqi Kurdistan’s relative security and stability — ensured as they are by the region’s own military forces and government institutions — stood in stark contrast to the rest of Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003. The semi-autonomous territory, moreover, has slowly but surely managed to build partnerships with a diverse array of international investors to help protect its latitude to self-govern. But all the while, Iraqi Kurdistan has been, and is, legally a part of Iraq and still nominally subject to the country’s federal government in Baghdad.

Voters in the region set out to change that on Monday, when the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) went ahead with a contentious referendum on the region’s independence. As soon as the first results trickled in from the 27 districts of Iraqi Kurdistan’s six provinces — three of which overlap with territory under Baghdad’s governance — the call for full autonomy came in loud and clear. The historic vote will reverberate throughout the country and the Middle East in the months ahead, ushering in negotiations over greater autonomy for the Kurds and another period of conflict in Iraq. Whether the referendum achieves its objective, though, is probably another story.

Independence is a goal long overdue from the Kurds’ perspective. After centuries under Ottoman rule, the ethnic group emerged from World War I empty-handed, having failed to secure a state for themselves in the mad dash to divvy up the lands of the former empire. Memories of their persecution under Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s administration, and of the conflicts among their own political parties, militias and tribes, are fresher for the Kurds and no easier to forget. Officials from the KRG and Iraqi government still accuse one another of maintaining dangerous nationalist policies, highlighting the lingering mistrust between Iraq’s Arab and Kurdish populations.

In 2005, Iraqi Kurdistan held an informal independence referendum. The results of that vote, like those of the latest referendum, overwhelmingly supported complete sovereignty for the region. Yet despite the calls for an official vote on the matter, a formal referendum never materialized — that is, until now — in large part because of the security problems facing Iraq and the KRG. The emergence of the Islamic State, for example, stayed discussions of a new independence vote. Now that Kurdish peshmerga fighters have helped clear the militant group from most of its strongholds in Iraq, including those in Iraqi Kurdistan, the timing seemed right to hold the long-awaited referendum.

But the Kurds’ allies in the coalition against the Islamic State aren’t so sure. The United States expressed concern with the referendum, even though it supports greater autonomy for the Kurds, because it worried that the independence vote would distract from the fight against the Islamic State. Washington also feared that the controversial referendum would draw yet another battle line in Iraq, this time between the country’s Kurds and Arabs. The ensuing conflict could, in turn, give fresh fodder to bombastic, hard-line politicians such as former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who keeps close ties with Iran and welcomes Tehran’s efforts to exert its influence in Iraq. So soon before Iraq’s next general election in 2018, the referendum could give the politicians in Iran’s pocket a talking point to curry favor with the many Iraqi voters who oppose Kurdish independence.

Part of the controversy surrounding the referendum centers on the inclusion of contested territories in the vote. The most important of these is Kirkuk, home to 15 to 20 percent of Iraq’s overall oil reserves. The KRG and Iraqi federal government both are unflinching in their claims to the province, and neither side will easily concede in the dispute given the resources at stake. Further complicating matters, Kirkuk and the rest of the disputed territories are wildly diverse, and because the referendum was designed to tally votes by district rather than by ethnic group, its results could gloss over dissent. Arab or Turkmen voters in Kirkuk or Diyala who opted against independence, for instance, will go unheard if more than 51 percent of their districts’ electorate voted “yes.” Whatever the ethnic breakdown district by district, the KRG and Iraqi federal government alike will highlight the diversity and high voter turnout in the disputed territories to support their claims to the areas. While Baghdad will argue that Arab voters, for example, voted “yes” in the referendum only because they were coerced to do so, the KRG will insist that their support for independence simply reflects their preference for life under Kurdish rule.

Outside Iraq, meanwhile, countries that vehemently opposed the referendum, such as Iran and Turkey, will push to delay the region’s independence now that the results of the vote are mostly in. The sizable demonstrations that broke out in Iran’s northwest Kurdish region on the evening of the referendum illustrated the vote’s influence beyond Iraq, confirming Tehran’s fears that the event would spark unrest among its Kurdish population. In a show of force to quell the dissent, Iran has since deployed extra military forces to the region. Turkey, likewise, has sent troops to reinforce its border with Iraqi Kurdistan while also threatening to cut off the KRG’s access to a crucial oil export pipeline and promising to downgrade its relations with Arbil in favor of working exclusively with Baghdad. Their mutual concern over the referendum, in fact, is bringing Turkey and Iran not only closer together but also closer to Iraq. Though their relations with the Iraqi federal government have soured in recent years, Ankara and Tehran will band together with Baghdad to work toward their common goal of thwarting the KRG’s independence.

Iraq’s Kurds, however, are fighting to ensure that their autonomy will be a foregone conclusion, a cornerstone of Middle Eastern politics that no one dare remove. By holding the referendum on Monday, the KRG took another step back from Baghdad — though Iraq won’t let it go without a fight. Considering the diplomatic and political risks entailed, moreover, few foreign nations will be willing to recognize the region’s independence, at least for now. And so begins a new era of ethnically charged instability in a land already rife with divisions as Arbil and Baghdad ramp up their tug of war in northern Iraq.


— A Vote of Contention in Iraqi Kurdistan originally appeared at Statfor.