Defying almost every major power in the region, the government of Iraqi Kurdistan organized and carried out a referendum billed as the first step toward independence from Baghdad.
As voting stations closed yesterday, an estimated 80% of registered voters were reported to have cast ballots. Many, according to The Guardian, felt the poll went beyond the autonomous region’s demand of full independence from the rest of Iraq – it stoked fears in Turkey, Iran, and Syria, of stoking a broader demand for Kurdish independence.
On top of demanding a full breakup with Baghdad, the referendum also offered residents of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk to become part of the Kurdistan Autonomous Region.
While Kirkuk has historically fallen outside of the KAR’s administration, the situation changed drastically with the rise of the Islamic State in 2014 and 2015.
Kurdish defense forces – known colloquially and locally as the Peshmerga – helped liberate tracts of the city from ISIS. Since then, the Peshmerga and Kurdish politicians and Erbil have effectively governed the city, which is surrounded by vast deposits of oil.
In response to the Kirkuk question, Iraq’s parliament on Monday debated sending soldiers into the area surrounding Kirkuk.
Despite the central government’s apparent unease with the referendum, residents of Kirkuk interviewed by The Guardian were in a festive mood.
“This is better than the Islamic festivals,” said 62-year old Abdul Kareem Karakash, a working blacksmith. “It is the best day of my life.”
Karakash’s relative, Mala Rasul Mamish, 40, said, “I hope that the West will see this as a historic day, and not just as the project of one political party. It is much more than that. So much of our blood has been spilled for being Kurds. The Iraqi government has done to us things that even infidels wouldn’t do.”
The response from neighboring countries to the referendum has ranged from cautious to threatening.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Recep Erdoğan threatend to consider cutting off an oil pipeline from Iraqi Kurdistan to Turkey.
Oil exports make up a significant portion of the KAR’s GDP.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abedi said, “The referendum is unconstitutional. It threatens Iraq, peaceful coexistence among Iraqis and is a danger to the region.”
The Kurds in Iraq gained autonomy from Baghdad in 1991, following the First Gulf War. Prior to the coalition invasion, Kurds had been subjected to violence and repression under the regime of Saddam Hussein – some have characterized the abuses and mass murders of the preceding years as genocide.
Since Saddam Hussein’s deposal, Iraqi Kurdistan has played a key role in U.S. military operations in the region. The KAR was generally regarded as a safe zone for American soldiers during the War in Iraq; the economy proposered and even brought in tourists from other Gulf Arab countries, despite turmoil in the rest of Iraq.
In recent years, the Peshmerga has gained worldwide appreciation for its role in the fight against the Islamic State.
The United States has named Kurdish defense forces as being among the most reliable and effective frontline troops in the war against the Islamic State, but has so far refused to support the region’s increasing drive for independence.
Prior to the opening of polls, America warned the Kurdistani Prime Minister that calling for independence now could risk throwing the region into turmoil.
The only government in the greater Middle-East which has publicly supported the referendum is that of Israel, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying the Kurds of Iraq had essentially proved themselves worth of a nation of their own.