Iraq’s sovereign Kurdish Parliament will hold a referendum on independence, despite hostility from Baghdad and the United States. Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s sitting prime minister, told the Associated Press that if Iraqi civilians are “threatened by the use of force outside the law, then we will intervene militarily” following the vote on September 25.
There are 25 to 35 million Kurds in Turkey, Syria, Iran, Armenia, and Northern Iraq. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Western powers’ 1920 Treaty of Sevres designated space for a Kurdish state. However, these plans were abandoned when the Eastern allies realigned Turkey under the Treaty of Lausanne.
Kurdish-Iraqi tensions have flared in ethnically fractured oil-rich regions that face day-to-day danger from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Though the United States supported Kurdish forces during the Gulf War in 1991, the White House publicly denounced the independence referendum, aligning with UN envoy Jay Kubis, who proposed a UN Security Council-supervised deal between the contending parties.
Al Jazeera reports that there is unfinished business in Kirkuk, a contended province, that would hinder Kurdish independence. Although the Iraqi government in Baghdad legally possesses the region, the Kurdish military has occupied Kirkuk and taken control of its notable oil supply.
On September 19, violence erupted in Kirkuk following a shootout between Kurdish protesters and Iraqi guards outside of a government office that killed one assailant. On the same day, the assailant’s brother and a Kurdish police unit ambushed a different government compound, resulting in no casualties. Since then, an ethnically diverse council of local officials has instituted a curfew and arrested several aggressors, whom the officials deemed “reckless enthusiastic youths.”
The United Nations is concerned with this potential opposition to Iraq’s sovereignty. According to the Guardian, the UN advised Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani to abandon the independence referendum and negotiate a new settlement with Baghdad over the next three years.
This conflict is not limited to the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Iraqi government in Baghdad. In 2015, the KDP quarreled with the Gorran Movement, the party’s largest opposition, and indefinitely suspended its parliamentary assemblies over continued conflicts between the two groups. Gorran boycotted
the session that resulted in the ratification of the independence referendum. Although the KDP may have plans for its supporters in a post-independence Kurdistan, the fate of the party’s internal opposition remains unclear despite a shared Kurdish identity.
Perhaps the violence in Kirkuk is a glimpse into post-referendum Iraq. If the vote results in a Kurdish independence proclamation, state leaders in the Middle East will see a decline in regional stability and an increased institutional presence from the United Nations. Although major players like the United States have verbally condemned the voting assembly, they will need to politically readjust if Kurdish independence becomes a reality after a century-long fight.