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Iraqi Kurdistan Votes on Independence: Middle East Heads for Another Major War

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Peter Korzun •

The situation of the Kurds has received little attention in media. Meanwhile, the largest ethnic group without a homeland is on the verge of a new status to reshape the political map of the Middle East. Iraq’s Kurdish region plans to hold an independence referendum on Sept. 25 in three governorates that make up their autonomous region, and in disputed areas controlled by Kurdish forces but claimed by Baghdad. A new non-Arab actor may soon appear on the Middle East volatile map. The process may not be limited to Iraq, but also include Syria, Turkey and Iran. Masrour Barzani, head of the Kurdish government’s Security Council and son of President Barzani, said a year ago that Iraq should be divided into separate Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish entities to prevent further sectarian bloodshed.

Roughly 30 million Kurds are spread across Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran. Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional parliament has approved plans to hold an independence referendum by an overwhelming majority, defying pressure from regional neighbors and western allies to stop the poll. This is a very risky move with many and varied opponents.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has urged Kurds in Iraq to scrap plans to hold an independence referendum, arguing it would detract from the fight against the Islamic State (IS). According to the statement made on September 17, any dispute between the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan regional government should be resolved through dialogue and “constructive compromise”.

The United States said the referendum should be called off. Brett McGurk, a US special envoy, said on September 15, that continuing with the referendum was a “very risky process” void of international legitimacy. The US administration fears the “yes” vote could trigger instability and violence in Iraq.

Iran warned on September 17 that independence for Iraqi Kurds would mean an end to all border and security arrangements with the regional government. Tehran sees the referendum as a “threat to its national security”. Seven million Kurds live in Iran. A neigbouring Kurdish state could contribute to secessionist sentiments. Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, warned that “Iran would then prepare itself to enter areas deeper than the border in response to anti-security actions,” referring to regular attacks by Iran’s own Kurdish separatists based in Iraqi territory.

On September 16, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said Iraq is prepared to intervene militarily if the Kurdish region’s planned independence referendum results in violence. “If you challenge the constitution and if you challenge the borders of Iraq and the borders of the region, this is a public invitation to the countries in the region to violate Iraqi borders as well, which is a very dangerous escalation,” Abadi said.

Last week, Iraqi lawmakers voted against the Kurdish independence referendum and called on the Baghdad government to negotiate with the semi-autonomous Kurdish government. The PM received authorization from Iraqi lawmakers “to use all measures to prevent the referendum from taking place.” Abadi runs for reelection in April. The Kurdish referendum voting to secede would bring down his popularity that went up after the military success against the Islamic State.

Turkey fears that a “yes” vote would fuel separatism in its southeast, where militants of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) have waged an insurgency for three decades. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on September 17 that he will meet Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in the United States this week to discuss joint concerns about the upcoming Kurdistan Region independence referendum. He said that Iraq and Turkey share the same opinion regarding the Kurdistan Region independence referendum. Ankara would hold an urgent high-level security meeting on September 22 to decide on how to respond to the plebiscite, saying the Kurdish leadership was suffering from “serious political ineptitude success against the Islamic State.

The Turkey’s Foreign Ministry called the referendum a “historic mistake”, warning that the Kurdish Iraq will “pay a price” if it goes through with the vote. The Turkish General Staff announced on Sept.18 that a military exercise had been launched in the Silopi-Habur region near the Iraqi border and that combat operations in the area will continue. Around 100 military vehicles including tanks, towed howitzers, and launching pads were reported to be participating in the drill.

It leaves Israel as the only country in the world that supports the referendum outright.

The Kurdish self-rule zone officially makes up about 10 percent of Iraq’s territory, with a population of about 3 million, around 8 percent of Iraq’s total 37 million. During the war against the Islamic State the Kurds have expanded control beyond their enclave’s formal borders, increasing its size by more than half. They have seized parts of northern Nineveh province and the oil-rich central region Kirkuk. The KRG says it intends to keep those areas.

The Kurdish government decided that the referendum on September 25 will include Kirkuk city, although it is an Arabian-Turkmen urban area with a little number of Kurdish residents. The Iraqi parliament has voted to sack the pro-independence governor of contested Kirkuk province, Najmaldin Karim, over his decision to participate in the referendum. The governor ignores the ouster. This all could lead to a new spiral of violence.

Kurdish peshmerga fighters have taken charge of security, while Shiite paramilitary units under the Iraqi command have been deployed on the outskirts of Kirkuk. Shiite militia warned that they were ready to fight for the contested territories, saying they would be considered Iraqi land occupied by Kurds if independence goes through. Iraqi forces are poised to launch an operation to liberate Hawija from Islamic State militants. Once the city is liberated, Iraqi forces will be only about 50 kilometers (31 miles) southwest of Kirkuk.

Iraqi Kurdistan is ready for war. Its President Masoud Barzani says he is ready for using force to protect the people’s will. The Kurdish militia (peshmerga) is well-trained by US and German instructors. It has tanks and other hardware in its inventory, including modern anti-tank missiles.

A “yes” vote won’t mean immediate independence for the Kurdish region though the Kurdistan Regional Government says the vote will be binding to set in motion a formal breakaway process, including negotiations with the Iraqi government and a diplomatic push to win the support of regional powers.

The Middle East has already become a powder keg. While public attention is riveted on Syria, the region is heading for another major military conflict.

Originally published by Strategic Culture Foundation