On Monday, Sept. 25, the Iraqi Kurdish group voted on their independence from Iraq. While the Kurds were expected to vote in favor of separation, several allies, especially the U.S., warned them not to go ahead with this plan.
In the Middle East, Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria share Kurdish territory. The Kurds are the fourth-largest ethnic group in this region after Arabs, Persians and Turks. While there are about 30 million Kurds living in this territory, about six million Kurds live in the Kurdistan region of Iraq and Baghdad where both the Kurds and Iraqi government claim territory.
The Kurds have never had their own independence as a country. After World War I, when the Ottoman Empire ended, the Kurds demanded their own state. However, several thousand were expelled from their traditional areas and dispersed to other areas of Turkey.
After World War II, the Soviet Union backed a Kurdish self- governing state in what is now Iran. The state called the Republic of Mahabad only lasted less than a year. Since then, the Kurds have had little autonomy in Iraq. In three northern Kurdish provinces, Kurds control the land borders with neighboring countries, elect their own parliament, maintain their own security forces and draft their own laws.
The Kurds want their own independence mainly because they do not feel safe as part of Iraq. In the late 1980s, Iraqi forces destroyed thousands of Kurdish villages in a campaign run by Saddam Hussein’s Arab Socialist Baath party to “Arabize” northern Iraq. This led to more than 100,000 Kurds being killed.
While Hussein is now gone, the Kurds continue to believe they will always face threats from an Iraqi Arab government. They blame Iraqi Arabs for the rise of ISIS, the group that mas- sacred members of the Yazidi minority. The Kurds are well-connected with the Yazidis—so much so that they consider this group a part of themselves.
Additionally, the Kurds want to control their own economy. Three years ago, when ISIS attacked, Iraqi forces refused to fight. The Kurdish fighters pushed ISIS back and took control of some of the biggest northern oil fields. This led to the Kurdish government accusing Baghdad of regressing to an agreement concerning a share of oil revenues. Bagdad claims that the Kurdish region is illegally exporting oil, which has led to an economic crisis.
The U.S. stands as allies with the Iraqi Kurds after the U.S. formed a coalition to drive Hussein out in 1991 when the group had also taken a stand against him. The Iraqi army attacked the north and millions of Kurds fled their homes to escape. This resulted in thousands of deaths.
A decade later, the Iraqi government punished the Kurds with trade sanctions and the Kurdish region was included in an international trade embargo against Iraq.
Although the U.S. stands as allies with the Kurds, the country opposes this independence referendum to avoid another conflict between Baghdad and the Kurdish government while they are still fighting ISIS.
Several neighbors of Iraq opposed the voting, such as Iran and Turkey. These countries worried that a Kurdish state would encourage their own Kurdish populations to attempt to break away economically. Additionally, these neighboring countries also threatened to close their borders and cancel trade and security agreements with the Kurds in Iraq.
Israel was the only country in favor of the voting since both countries have long-standing security and business ties with each other. Both Israel and the Kurds would agree to have a non-Arab ally in the Middle East.
This referendum was controversial within the Kurdish region because the vote was led by regional President Massoud Barzani, whose Kurdistan Democratic Party controls the government.
The Kurdish political parties remain wary of Barzani. His term ended two years ago, but he still holds the position of president. Some Kurds believe that the president should focus on strengthening democracy and restoring the economy instead of running a referendum. Several believe that Barzani is using the referendum to strengthen his power while his governmental power is weak from the Kurdish financial crisis.
Overall the referendum may predict the Kurdish leader’s plan to pursue independence. While the vote will not directly lead to independence, it may easily lead to retaliation from Iraq’s neighbors and allies. However, the Kurds believe this voting is worth it. Will economic freedom, higher security and governmental peace be the solution for the Kurds to develop as their own nation?