“When will be a good time for deciding our own fate?”
“Tomorrow, two years from now, after 10 years, when those who are opposed to it now will never change their minds? So why shouldn’t we exercise our right to self-determination?”
These are the questions you get from Kurds of all ages if you ask them why are they holding a vote for independence now.
There are two sides to life in Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq. One part is in buzzing high-end cafes with affluent Kurds whose shiny SUVs line the streets. And then there is the majority of the people, sipping tea and going about their lives in the regular bazaars and neighbourhoods.
Almost all are convinced they need their own state.
|Biza Barzo – Kurdish youth activist|
|I believe that the clear majority favour a “Yes” vote for independence and, even if one believes that denominational differences are constructed and that the formation of new nation-states ultimately does not solve the “national question”, it is hard not to accept that there is a powerful moral case for Kurdish self-rule in Iraq, given our grievances throughout history.|
The Kurds are a diverse group of people, not just based on their socioeconomic but also on religious, sectarian, political and tribal influences. But there is one thing that unites them all – a deep-rooted Kurdish nationalism, an identity they are proud of and say they have fought hard to maintain.
The nearly 41,000-square kilometres of Kurdish and contested areas are holding a referendum that will pave the way to the larger issue of whether they want to secede from Iraq. There has been some opposition from within but on the mechanism of the vote, its timings – but no side has come out against the prospect of an independent Kurdish state.
That opposition has come from outside of the Kurdish region. United States, Iran, Turkey and the Iraqi government have all called for the vote to be postponed. President Masoud Barzani‘s government has been treading a tight rope with regional powers such as Iran and Turkey, but its relationship with the central government in Baghdad has been on a downward spiral.
Iraq’s Supreme Court ordered the regional government not to hold the referendum, but in the absence of guarantees and a lucrative alternative, Barzani is adamant he will hold the referendum on September 25.
Dispute on Kirkuk
Besides economic fears in the land-locked region that heavily relies on Turkey for its imports, there is the issue of security and a possible confrontation with Iraqi forces. Baghdad accuses the Kurds of expanding their original boundaries to contested areas during the fight against ISIL.
Barzani has offered a “special status” for Kirkuk if its people vote to remain under Kurdish leadership. You can’t miss the love affair between Kirkuk and its oil as soon as you enter the city, there are tankers and visible oil field flares in almost all parts of the city.
|Gulabagh Sabah – Kurdish volunteer aid worker|
This referendum is the last chance Kurds will get. I think that we should take it and establish the long-waited-for Kurdish state. After all, staying one with Iraq is impossible. Iraq is being ruled by Iran, Saudi and Turkey. And the US is staying away from the mess they created in 2003 here.
Analysts point out the oil-town is at the heart of the dispute because all sides want its oil and gas to be directed to their coffers. The Kurdish Regional Government insists it has tried for years to solve the issue, but Baghdad is not serious in implementing article 140 of the constitution to allow disputed areas to decide their own fate.
Baghdad sees this as an opportunistic move after the coming defeat of ISIL, and Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has warned the option of using military force is not off the table.
Everyone seems to have dug their heels in and taken a position, but calling off the referendum seems increasingly unlikely.
One Kurdish official summarised the situation to me with these words: “The world wasn’t ready for the separation in the Balkans, and it will never be ready for a change in the status quo. But guess what, when it happens they have to accept it and deal with it.”