In late September, Iraqi Kurds voted by 93 per cent to support independence. The referendum result sparked spontaneous celebrations by Kurdish people across the region.
However it drew immediate opposition and threats from the neighbouring governments of Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria.
All have large Kurdish populations within their borders. The Kurds are one of the world’s largest nationalities without their own state, with between 40 and 50 million people across the four countries.
The US also condemned the push for independence, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson saying, “the vote and the results lack legitimacy”. Russia too came out against Kurdish self-determination.
Iraqi Kurdistan has been an autonomous province within Iraq since the US established a no-fly zone over the area following the 1991 Gulf War. Iraq’s Kurds have long held hopes for independence. Their takeover of the city of Kirkuk and the oil-rich region surrounding it in 2014, when the Iraqi army fled advancing Islamic State fighters, made independence seem possible.
But the backlash following the referendum has been faster and more furious than most anticipated.
Soon after the vote, Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar Al-Abadi visited Iran. The two countries, which fought a horrific war in the 1980s, are now closely aligned—not least in their support of the Syrian regime and their opposition to Kurdish rights.
Emboldened by Tehran’s support, Al-Abadi stated that nothing short of a complete annulment of the referendum would suffice. Iran’s first Vice President, Eshaq Jahangiri, went further, describing the Kurdish referendum as an act of sedition.
The Turkish government announced it might send troops, would hand control of its border with Iraqi Kurdistan to Baghdad, and threatened to shut down an oil pipeline from the Kurdish region that runs into Turkey.
Within a fortnight, the Iraqi army, alongside the Shia militias of the Popular Mobilisation Units, had retaken Kirkuk and the surrounding area, forcing the Kurds back to the area they controlled before 2014.
On Tuesday 24 October, Iraqi forces even attacked Iraqi Kurdistan’s most important oil hub—the Fish-Khabur area on the Iraq-Turkey border. Although Kurdish Peshmerga fighters repelled them, it showed Iraq’s preparedness to encroach into the Kurdish heartland.
The US has been happy to use the Kurds as ground troops in the war against Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. But it views an independent Kurdish state as destabilising governments like Turkey and Iraq where it also wants influence. The US’s primary concern is to maintain its own power in the region.
In a bitter speech on 30 October announcing his retirement, Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) since 2005 criticised the US for allowing Abrams tanks supplied to Iraqi forces to fight IS to be used against the Kurds.
“Nobody stood up with us other than our mountains,” he said “Without the help of Peshmerga, Iraqi forces could not have liberated Mosul from ISIS alone…Why would Washington want to punish Kurdistan?”
“Three million votes for Kurdistan independence created history and cannot be erased,” he added.
American weapons were also apparently used by Iranian-backed paramilitaries to attack the Kurds.
The belligerence of regional governments and the hypocrisy and betrayals of the imperialist powers are on full display.
The US had urged Barzani to postpone the referendum. But he couldn’t afford to put it off any longer.
Barzani has run the KRG like a fiefdom for his family and associates.
Corruption and widening inequality were undermining his popularity, and his repeated postponement of the referendum was undermining his credibility. The parliament has been suspended since 2015 after a dispute between Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and the opposition Gorran movement. Elections scheduled for November have been delayed for eight months.
Barzani’s main rival in Iraqi Kurdistan is another corrupt party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), run by the family of the recently deceased Jalal Talabani.
Barzani accused followers of the PUK of “high treason” after the PUK militia allowed Iraqi forces to retake the city of Kirkuk without a fight.
The Kurdish movement is also divided into hostile factions across the different countries with Kurdish populations. The Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its allies in Syria and Iraq saw Barzani’s referendum as a threat to their own influence, and would not hold public celebrations of the result.
As exiled Syrian revolutionary Joseph Daher wrote immediately following the vote, “support for the right of self-determination to the Kurdish people and opposition to the Barzani clan is a necessity for combining democratic and social rights in the Kurdistan autonomous region.”
It will require a new grassroots democratic movement in Iraqi Kurdistan to deliver both self-determination and an end to inequality.
By Mark Goudkamp