The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) seems likely to press ahead with an independence referendum on September 25, although mediation efforts to suspend it continue. The referendum, primarily led by Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Masoud Barzani, draws on long-standing Kurdish aspirations for statehood. This vote will not lead to a state, given the lack of institutional mechanisms for doing so. However, the plan to include ethnically mixed disputed territories in the referendum, combined with rhetorical excesses from leading Kurdish figures, has raised fears within these communities of annexation and raised the possibility of localized armed conflict on an ethnic basis.
Barzani, whose mandate ended on August 19, 2015 but remains acting president, first established the referendum by an executive decree issued on June 8, 2017. Of other Kurdish political parties, only the Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU) has unequivocally supported the referendum. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which is the KRG’s second-largest Kurdish party, remains divided on whether to support it, while the Gorran Movement and the smaller Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG) have opposed it. After a two year hiatus, only 68 out of 111 members from the KDP, the KIU, and part of the PUK bloc attended the opening session of the Kurdistan parliament on September 15. Still, 65 votes were enough to endorse the referendum and confirm that it should take place on September 25. While the parliament is pushing ahead with the referendum questions remain regarding its constitutionality on two fronts. First, the decree that established the referendum was questioned even by many Kurds because Barzani passed it by executive order even after his mandate had expired. Second, and more importantly from the non-Kurd point of view, the federal constitution grants no right of secession and Article 1 guarantees “the unity of Iraq.”
The referendum is planned to include areas that, while only partially Kurdish, also include Arabs, Turkmen, and Arabic-speaking religious minorities—only adding to its controversy. The decree’s text emphasizes that the referendum is for all people living in Kurdish areas and not merely ethnic Kurds. Despite Barzani’s statement that minorities in the disputed territories would be able to hold separate votes to determine their future, the literal terms of the executive order would allow non-Kurdish populations to be forcibly incorporated as long as there is an overall majority among all areas taking part in the referendum, which will surely be the case. The inclusion of mixed areas could potentially turn the vote into a spark for ethnic conflict, especially given Barzani’s post-2014 statements about new borders being “drawn in blood” and his August speech declaring that Kurds would sacrifice their lives “fighting to the last person for Kirkuk.” To many Arabs, this implies that they are engaging in aggression. Although in all likelihood the referendum will not lead to independence, the perception that a potentially independent Kurdistan would include non-Kurdish minorities is driving angry reactions.
Kirkuk is particularly illustrative of fears and tensions in the ethnically mixed areas, and brings back to the fore the city’s long-fraught status. Since the referendum will take place without the Arab district of Hawija, which contains most of Kirkuk’s Arab population and is still occupied by the Islamic State, the Kirkuk vote will likely be a “yes.” Holding the referendum in Kirkuk is all the more controversial because it was approved by a Kurdish-dominated provincial council elected back in January 2005 during an Arab boycott. Barzani’s use of the language of self-defense in reference to Kirkuk highlights the assumption that Kirkuk belongs to Kurds. Likewise, Arabs and Turkmen use the language of defense against aggressive Kurdish annexation because they, like the Kurds, view Kirkuk city as theirs. While some “disputed territories” are today less homogenously Kurdish because the Baathist regime brought Arab populations in from northern Iraq, in Kirkuk the large Turkmen minority has been there since the Ottoman period. Because of the referendum, these Turkmen now feel threatened with forcible separation from the only country they have ever known. In 2015, Mohammad Mahdi al-Bayati, a Shia Turkmen leader with the Popular Mobilization Forces, led clashes with the Kurdish peshmerga in Tuz Khurmatu, 55 miles (90 kilometers) southeast of Kirkuk to prevent it from becoming part of a Kurdish-dominated state. More recently, Bayati wrote an open letter to Arab and Turkmen tribes in Kirkuk on the need to resist “oppression” by the Kurds with force. Sunni Turkmen have also called for military mobilization, demanding that Baghdad declare martial law in Kirkuk and deploy armed forces to prevent the referendum.
Even overwhelmingly Kurdish areas may be a source of conflict, as is clear from a recent incident in Mandali, a town in Diyala province that is just south of the PUK-dominated district of Khanaqin and appears to be about half Arab. On September 10 and 11 both peaceful and armed protests broke out against the town’s inclusion in the referendum. In response, Kurdish authorities canceled plans to open a polling station in the town and instructed Mandali residents to vote in Khanaqin city. This, however, implied that Arab residents of the city could be annexed to Kurdistan by a vote of its Kurdish residents in Kurdish-controlled territory.
In Baghdad, Vice President and former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has led hard-edged rhetoric against the referendum, stating that military force might be needed against Barzani. Maliki has frequently attacked the KDP sharply, framing the Kurds as part of a Turkish-backed effort to change borders and engage in ethnic cleansing. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has avoided threatening language but still rejected the referendum as unconstitutional. When asked during his September 6 press conference what “tangible measures” he would take, he attacked KRG policies in order to shield himself from criticism but did not mention any concrete action. Only later, as tensions dramatically increased, did Abadi declare that Iraq might resort to the use of force “to protect our population, to protect our Kurdish population and our Arab and Turkmen and other ethnic populations of our own country.” Rising tensions are also pressuring Abadi to take a harder line on other issues the federal parliament had with Kirkuk’s Governor Najmuddin Karim of the PUK who had defied the judiciary to raise the Kurdish flag on government buildings. Abadi ignored the requests of Arab and Turkmen MPs for Karim’s impeachment, but once Karim supported the inclusion of Kirkuk in the referendum, Abadi called on parliament to impeach him, and it immediately voted to remove him.
Perhaps recognizing the danger of such tensions, Barzani appeared to temper his stance in a September 16 speech in Dohuk to a gathering of residents from the heavily Arab Nineveh Plains. Speaking in Arabic, Barzani stressed that the referendum did not intend to “draw borders” but was simply “just to get people’s opinion, and then we enter into negotiations.” Yet he paired this with harsh words for Baghdad, saying in response to parliament’s impeachment of Kirkuk’s governor, “to us now there is no federal government, no federal parliament, it is now just a tool in the hands of chauvinists.”
At this point escalatory rhetoric has reached a fever pitch; had Barzani stressed the exercise would draw no borders from the beginning, it would have lessened tensions. Barzani is now at pains to stress that the vote is purely symbolic, but the harm is done. The aggressive rhetoric has taken on a life of its own, alarming ethnically mixed areas and heightening tensions between the central government and the KRG. Although a large-scale military conflict is unlikely, localized armed clashes are a possibility in multiple areas. At a minimum, what was always going to be a symbolic vote has stalled Iraq’s political process and put joint anti-terrorist military operations at risk.
Kirk H. Sowell is the publisher of the biweekly newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics. Follow him on Twitter @UticaRisk.
* This article has been updated to reflect three corrections: the number of seats in the Kurdistan Parliament, the location of Mandali, and the size of the PUK.