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A year after referendum, what does the future hold for Iraq’s Kurds?

As tensions rise among the dominant powers in and around Iraq, the Kurdish call for independence will eventually come to the fore again

After the First World War, global powers found it relatively easy to ignore the aspirations of the Kurdish people - particularly southern Kurds, who were arbitrarily incorporated into the new state of Iraq. 

In the 15 years since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, not much has been done to persuade Iraq’s various factions to fight for national unity. For a long time, Iraq has been on the brink of being a failed state. Under such circumstances, Iraqi Kurds have little-to-no hope of fulfilling their ambitions while remaining part of the Iraqi state. 

The idea of an independent Kurdish state still resonates strongly among Kurds, along with the notion that they were the main victims of the Sykes-Picot agreement. With the current upheavals in the region and their growing economic power, Kurds believe it is time for them to have their right of statehood fulfilled, in the same way as other nations of the Middle East.

Paranoia grows

The existence of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as a self-ruling de-facto entity in Iraq’s Kurdish region goes back to the 1991 Kurdish uprising after the Gulf War. The following year, Kurdish political parties called for a general election, bringing the KRG into existence. 

For more than a decade, the Kurdish region acted as a semi-independent state, with no central control from the Iraqi government. However, after the 2003 occupation of Iraq, Kurdish political parties went back to Baghdad, hoping to guarantee Kurdish rights within a new Iraq defined as a federal, parliamentary and democratic state. These principles were written into the 2005 Iraqi constitution, with many rights for Kurds within the state of Iraq. 

The Kurds’ dream of a democratic, federal Iraq, where they could build their hopes on the Iraqi constitution, is far from being fulfilled in this chaotic situation

Yet, the more time went on, the more Kurdish paranoia grew towards the Iraqi central government. Kurds believed that Baghdad was not ready to give them any crucial rights, but was rather trying to gain time while preparing to strip the region of its pre-existing quasi-independence.

Article 140 of the constitution, which involved holding referenda to determine the fate of Kirkuk and other disputed territories that had been subject to Arabisation before 2003, was meant to be implemented by the end of 2007, but that never happened. By the time of the Kurdish independence referendum in September 2017, the KRG had cited more than 50 articles in the Iraqi constitution that had been violated.

Chance for self-rule

In the prelude to last year’s referendum, the Iraqi government claimed that the region’s government enjoyed much more authority than any regional government should have within a federal state. 

In a sense, both sides were right. Kurds had already established a set of rights from which they could not step back, especially considering that those rights were written into the Iraqi constitution. At the same time, within the framework of a central government, Baghdad could not accept a single region enjoying this level of authority. The Kurdish referendum was the only possible chance for Kurds to attain self-rule.

Iraqi Kurds celebrate in the northern city of Kirkuk on 25 September 2017 as they vote in an independence referendum (AFP)

Weeks after the 25 September referendum, in which Kurds overwhelmingly voted for independence, the Iraqi military and affiliated militias marched on Kirkuk on 16 October, as a faction of Kurdish local leaders allowed them to control the city. 

The situation in Iraq today is worse than it was in 2003, when the country’s various sectarian groups were looking towards a new, post-Saddam era. It is more fragmented than ever, especially following the controversial 12 May parliamentary elections.

As for the Kurds, post-referendum, they have not yet witnessed implementation of any of the dozens of articles in the Iraqi constitution concerning their rights. 

Trust destroyed

There is no longer any trust between the Kurds and Baghdad. In a failed country that cannot even provide drinking water for its people, and amid escalating tensions among the dominant powers in and around Iraq, the referendum’s result will eventually come to the fore again.

Iraq’s Shia are no longer a one-hearted, leading majority - while Sunnis, in the aftermath of the Islamic State (IS) group invasion, will inevitably demand their own viable, self-ruling federation.

Why a Kurdish national state will fail
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The Kurds’ dream of a democratic, federal Iraq, where they could build their hopes on the Iraqi constitution, is far from being fulfilled in this chaotic situation. 

Only two avenues remain for the Kurds: pushing to enforce the Iraqi constitution or enacting the referendum results, although the latter depends on other factors, including the growing contest between regional and world powers to reshape the Middle East. As this contest evolves, the Kurds will surely show their cards.

- Mohammad Salih Mustafa holds a PhD in ethno-political studies from the University of Exeter; his thesis was titled Religious Nationalism in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

The opinions expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: An Iraqi Kurd marches with a Kurdish flag during a protest in Erbil on 30 October 2017 (AFP)

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