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What Iraq’s Kurds want, and why it may get complicated

Kurdish flags flutter close to a monument for the victims of a gas attack by former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein in 1988 during 26th observations on the anniversary of the attack in the Kurdish town of Halabja on March 16, 2014. (Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty Images)

In a new interview with the BBC, the president of Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdistan region said that Iraq's Kurdish people would hold a referendum on independence within months. "Iraq is effectively partitioned now," Massoud Barzani said. "Are we supposed to stay in this tragic situation the country's living? It's not me who will decide on independence. It's the people. We'll hold a referendum and it's a matter of months."

This isn't the first time there have been calls for an independent Kurdistan, of course, nor is it the first time that Iraq's Kurds have demanded the right to a referendum – in 2005, Kurdish leaders requested that the new Iraqi constitution include a clause that would allow a referendum, for example.

There are three key reasons to take the new calls for a referendum seriously, however.

First, in its current state, Iraq isn't much of a country to be a part of. The United Nations has estimated that 2,400 people were killed in the month of June, making it the deadliest month in years, and few people seem to have faith that the Shiite-led government, currently controlled by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has much chance of ending that violence. Vast areas of the country are now under the nominal control of ISIS, the Sunni Islamist group that recently declared a caliphate, with allies from the old Baathist Party days giving them significant support.

Then there's another point: The Kurdistan region has been de-facto independent for some time now. The Iraqi-Kurdish Autonomy Agreement of 1970 paved the way for talks about independence within Iraq, and the Iraqi constitution of 2005 allowed for some quite significant federal devolution, with Kurdish leaders taking advantage of as much of it as Maliki would allow. The region even has its own army, the Peshmerga, who forced Iraqi troops from the region decades ago and have arguably had more success than the main Iraqi army when dealing with ISIS insurgents. Full independence from the already-weakened Iraq seems the logical next step.

Finally, there's the historical factor. Much has been made of whether the current situation in Iraq and Syria can ultimately be seen as the failure of the "Sykes-Picot" border, a reference to the 1916 agreement that between France and Britain that carved up Ottoman Empire's Arab areas between them. Many people believe that the split between Sunni and Shiite Arabs is largely a result of these inconsiderate borders. Perhaps that's true, but there are certainly some good arguments against it – read my colleague Ishaan Tharoor's take on it here, for example.

Kurds too have reason to feel angered by the post-World War I borders in the Middle East. The Kurdish people had long lived a semi-nomadic life in the Ottoman Empire, herding sheep between the Mesopotamian plains and the mountainous regions of Iran and Turkey. While they are largely Sunni Muslim, they had their own distinct language and culture that clearly separated them from their Arab, Turkic and Persian neighbors. When the Ottoman Empire crumbled and was replaced by nation-states, the Kurds hoped to gain their own: Instead, they were split between different nations. In Iraq, as in many of the other states where they formed minorities, the Kurds faced serious persecution. When Kurds supported Iran during the Iraq-Iran War, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons on Kurdish civilians. As many as 180,000 Kurds were thought to have died in what has been called a genocide.

(Laris Karklis/The Washington Post)

Given these points, perhaps a truly independent Kurdistan region is an understandable goal. And most Kurds do seem to support it: An informal referendum held during the 2005 election found that 98 percent of Iraqi Kurds would want independence if they could have it.

But how could independence actually work? The Baghdad government has vocally opposed a referendum (“The government doesn't accept anything outside the constitutional way, which was voted on by the Kurds,” an adviser to Maliki has told Bloomberg News) and the vast majority of non-Kurdish Iraqis also oppose it. Given the trans-border nature of the Kurdish people, there are broader regional issues, too: The Turkish government has expressed its opposition to an independent Kurdistan region, no doubt due to fears that its own Kurdish minority might get their own ideas.

Even the Kurdish people don't necessarily represent a united front. Kurdish groups in other countries, notably Turkey's Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), have long called for a united Greater Kurdistan rather than separate states. Even Iraqi Kurds aren't as united as it might appear, with much of the country split between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, both of whom operate their own security forces (the two parties fought a three-year civil war in the 1990s but have a power-sharing agreement now).

There are many other issues revolving around a potentially independent Iraq Kurdistan region, such as the economic viability of a landlocked nation and even what its borders may be: Kurdish forces recently took the oil-rich town of Kirkuk, and are vowing to hold it until a referendum on which they could vote on joining the Kurdistan region, something that would provoke the ire of both the rest of Iraq and Turkey, who consider the city their ancestral capital. The security threat from ISIS and other extremist groups may remain (there are known to be around 200 Iraqi Kurds who traveled to Syria as jihadists, but that number may well be higher).

Recent history has shown that independence movements, wherever they are, face a complicated journey. The Kurdistan regional government has indicated that it hopes it can attain a relatively simple break from Iraq with the approval of Baghdad, pointing to Czechoslovakia as a potential model. Unfortunately, the breakup of Yugoslavia and the problems that have dogged the subsequent nations since may well be an alternate model. 

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.



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