On September 25, 2017, millions of people in Iraqi Kurdistan will be voting on a referendum to decide whether the region will declare its independence from Iraq.
In accordance to the Iraqi constitution of 2005, the region of Kurdistan is an autonomous area. It is governed by the regional Kurdish government. Much of the population in the region is comprised of the Kurdish minority, which comes to around 6 million people. Historically, the Kurdish region has seen a long list of invaders and conquerors. This includes ancient Persians from the east, Alexander the Great from the West. In the 7th Century Muslim Arabs invaded the region. In the 11th Century it was Seljuk Turks and it was the Ottoman Turks in the 16th Century. Most recently, in 2003, the United States invaded Iraq.
The Kurds form about 20% of the Iraqi population. The region became autonomous after decades long political and military efforts for self-rule. There are estimated to be 30 to 40 million Kurds living in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and areas that used to be Soviet Caucasus. It is only in Iraq that the Kurds have been able to establish their own governance. Due to the attack by the Islamic State (ISIS), the stability of Iraq has been severely affected. In 2014, Iraqi Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani said that his government intended to hold a referendum on independence that year. However, there was a change in the main leadership in Iraq and this resulted in better relations. At the time, the referendum was called off. It caused an alarm in the neighboring states as they feared that their Kurdish population may also seek independence.
The Kurdish government once again announced its intent on holding a referendum of its independence in 2017. This has been met with resistance not only within Iraq but also in the international community. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi called the referendum, scheduled to be held on September 25, 2017, an “unconstitutional decision. He said, “This is an unconstitutional decision against the social fabric of our citizens. We will not recognize the referendum, nor its results. We will take follow-up steps to protect the unity of the country and the interests of every citizen living in a unified Iraq.”
Barzani, however, has urged millions of Kurds to take to the ballots to vote in the process. He said, “We will take follow-up steps to protect the unity of the country and the interests of every citizen living in a unified Iraq. Is it a crime to ask people in Kurdistan to express in a democratic way what they want to have for the future? If we have a constructive dialogue, then we can give it even more time, in order to secure better relations between the Kurds and Baghdad.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of protestors took to the streets both in favor of and against the referendum. Recently, four Iraqi Kurdish soldiers were killed in an explosion in Kirkuk. Additionally, US, Iran and the UN have spoken against the secession. Turkey is conducting military exercises to allay fears of insurgence within its own soil.
More than 5.2 million people have registered to vote.
Our assessment is that the referendum will have the power to bring further instability to an already fractured region. Kurdish troops have played a vital role in fighting ISIS, however, with a broken Iraq, it is possible for ISIS to regain some of the footing in the region.