On 18 September the Iraqi Supreme Court ordered the suspension of the Kurdish independence referendum planned on 25 September. According to court spokesman Ayas al-Samouk, the decision was made after receiving several complaints. At least three legislators would have filed complaints against the non-binding referendum. All preparations have to stopped ‘’until [the court] examines the complaints it has received over this plebiscite being unconstitutional,’’ the Supreme court said in a statement. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had previously demanded the suspension of the independence referendum and threated with military intervention, if violent incidents would happen.
Now the Iraqi Supreme Court has issued the order to postpone the Kurdish independence referendum, the position of Massoud Barzani, President of the ruling Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), is very delicate politically. Barzani holds his ground, however, and says the plans will go ahead in the absence of alternatives. It will be very humiliating for him to postpone the referendum, he added. A pro-independence vote would not lead to an immediate separation from Iraq, but ‘’serious discussions’’ with Baghdad would surely be started, the KRG said earlier.
The reasons for holding the referendum
The Iraqi Kurds in the semi-autonomous region are united by a deep-rooted nationalism despite they are a diverse group of people both in religious and socioeconomic terms. Since the limited autonomy granted by the Iraqi government in 1974, the Kurds have been longing for their own independent state. The referendum incites Kurdish nationalism even more. Holding a referendum will gave the capital of the Kurdish region Erbil more bargaining power in separation negotiations with Baghdad by pressuring the process. The time of the referendum is also not randomly chosen. In April 2018 Iraqi national elections will be hold. Therefore, this pre-election period is seen as a more favourable time to negotiate with Baghdad.
What is at stake is not only the independence of the northern Kurdish region, comprising the provinces of Duhok, Sulaimaniya, and Halabja, and governed by the KRG since 1992, but also the extent of that region. In the south, the Iraqi-Kurdish Peshmerga hold many former ISIS-territories, both claimed by the KRG and the central government. These areas consist of oil-rich fields, giving the possessor large revenues. The southern area is inhabited by both Arabs and Kurds as well as ethnic minorities like Yazidis and Christians. The referendum helps to legitimize the Kurdish claim on these territories.
Iraqi Kurds are divided on the issue. The main opposition party, the Movement for Change (Gorran), boycotted the parliamentary session, and rejected holding a independence referendum at this stage. Also other political parties, including the Islamic Union of Kurdistan (KIU) and the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIK), did not officially declared their support, although some political leaders gave their support for the referendum. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is internally split over the issue and gave only conditional support. Critics say Barzani wants to use the referendum to consolidate his position as leader of the KRG and head of the KDP in the upcoming presidential and parliamentary elections on 1 November. Earlier he held his post as President unconstitutionally for some months in 2015. Furthermore, the referendum would distract the Kurdish people from the poor economic state of the KRG, according to critics of Barzani. Since 2014, the oil prices have been falling and many government employees have not been paid for months.
Independence: opposed by many
Not only Baghdad rejects any form of independence from Iraq. Several countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Turkey and Iran, are against Kurdish independence from Baghdad. Only Israel supports a Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Russia has not clearly stated its stance on the issue. Turkey fears an independent Kurdish state will result in a new conflict in the region. Turkish Kurds may also push for more autonomy from Ankara as well. Although Iran sees the Kurds as allies, the country opposes the referendum which would be a threat to its national security. Like Turkey, Iran fears an independent Kurdish state will bolster separation movements in its own country. Moreover, more independence will end all border and security arrangements with the regional government, leading to stricter border controls. Earlier the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called the Kurds to postpone the referendum, arguing that it ‘’any unilateral decision to hold a referendum at this time would detract from the need to defeat ISIL.’’ Furthermore, he said that disputes between the Iraqi government and the KRG needed to be resolved through dialogue and ‘’constructive compromise’’, so refugees can return to their homes. The United Nations would act as mediator between the Iraqi government and the KRG during the negotiations to reach a deal within two or three years. The British defence secretary, Michael Fallon, said he would meet Barzani on 24 September to persuade the President not to hold the referendum.