Sep 29th, 2017, 01:25 PM

Iraqi Kurdistan Votes for Independence

By Nina Rines
Image Credit: Shutterstock/Thomas Koch
"We can finally get to the point where we exist on this earth just like any other nation; we feel our presence in the world’s history."

Monday, September 25, 2017, Iraqi Kurdistan held a referendum for independence from the Republic of Iraq to which the large majority voted "yes." While the results of the referendum are not binding, the president of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) Masoud Barzani is determined to push negotiations with the Baghdad government towards independence for Iraq’s Kurds. Neighboring countries have in turn threatened sanctions, blockades, and even military action in response to the referendum. Currently, Iraqi military forces have attacked the Kurdish Peshmerga (autonomous Kurdish military forces, led by the Kurdish President) in response to the autonomous territory declaring statehood. 

AUP alumni Zeen Said is a citizen of Iraqi-Kurdistan and very passionate about the future of her people and her country. Reflecting upon hearing the results of the referendum before the conflict initiated, she said, "like any other Kurdish citizen, I've been waiting for this day all my life. For hundreds of years, we have been subjected to massacres and genocides, which we suffer from [to this day]... This independence referendum will give us the chance to live our lives the way we wish, without oppression and without being second-class citizens." 

The Kurds held the vote on the referendum despite threats to block it from Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, the region's main link to the outside world. With a voter turnout of 72% out of 5.2 million potential participants, 95% voted for independence. "[This] shows the united will of our nation and people. The mood was one of a lifetime, everyone was excited and happy about the result, people from all ethnicities and age groups came out on the streets to celebrate" recalled Zeen. 

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Thomas Koch

The potential implications on the Middle East's future could be huge: about 30 million Kurds now live in the Middle East (Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Armenia, and Iran). It is one of the world’s largest communities/nations in the world that has never had a sovereign and independent state. Most of all Kurds are in Turkey—about 16 million, mainly in the south-eastern provinces of the country. Kurds are often confused with Turks, Arabs, and Persians, but they have a completely different ethnic background—and the Kurdish language belongs to the family of Indo-European languages, separate from Arabic, Turkish, or Farsi. 

When asked about other Kurds also calling for independence, Zeen responded, "Statehood in Iran and Turkey will be more difficult, but as long as Turkey and Iran continue to oppress Kurds and treat them as second-class citizens, all Kurds in all nations will continue the struggle, whether its autonomy, independence or equal rights in those countries, depends on the above-named countries. For sure, not all of the rest might join, but at the end of the day they’re Kurds and they have no other place to go if they want to live on a land where they belong."

The referendum has definitely increased tensions across a region already struggling to deal with so many problems, while the battle against terrorism is far from over. The federal government warned the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) authorities must hand over their airports by Friday or face an international air embargo which took place September 29, 2017, blocking international flights to Kurdistan as retaliation. The Iraqi government has also warned that the KRG must hand over their international land borders.

"As long as Turkey and Iran continue to oppress Kurds and treat them as second-class citizens, all Kurds in all nations will continue the struggle, whether its autonomy, independence or equal rights."

Pressure on Barzani from the wider region continues to mount, apart from the aggression by Baghdad. Turkey has already mobilized troops at their borders with Iraqi Kurdistan. The President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, claimed the referendum illegitimate, saying the Kurdish government "made a big mistake by holding the referendum" and must be prevented from "bigger mistakes." “It's very important that the international community takes a stance supporting Iraqi territorial integrity and political unity,” Erdogan added in a press conference with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. 

"Their current threats are a natural reaction to the Kurdish question, but they will remain as threats, and dialogue and peace will retaliate between us," believes Zeen. "Corruption and racism are still very present in the [Iraqi] government and military, and any military action towards Kurdistan will end in embarrassment for Iraq and its people."  As for threats from Turkey and Iran, should they be realized, "it [would] not be an attack on our government or on Iraqi Kurdistan, it would be an attack against our culture and all Kurdish people, which will lead to a civil war in Iran and Turkey as well; both nations are aware of this threat." 

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Owen Holdaway

Meanwhile, both the E.U. and the U.S. do not agree with the timing of the referendum and urged to no avail to postpone it, believing that it will weaken Iraq’s unity at a time when the fight against terrorism is of utmost importance.  

KRG president Masoud Barzani responded on Kurdish TV that the wishes of Iraq’s Kurds should be respected. “Yes, in the beginning, we agreed on a constitution and partnership and the role of the Kurdistan region in the establishment of Iraq is very clear, but you violated every agreement. There is no need for anger and threats, you have only yourself to blame.”

Zeen found that the referendum "does affect everyone around me, especially my parents for they have seen and been through a lot during the wars against the invaders and Saddam Hussein’s regime. As a daughter of a Peshmerga, I indeed believe that this is our right to declare the independence for all the wars and sacrifice of the Peshmergas and my people becomes worth it."

"We believe that Kurdistan deserves to be independent. If not today, then tomorrow."