Vote by Iraqi Kurds Adds to Tensions

The Kurds, a long-suffering ethnic group in the Mideast, have long sought an independent state – and Iraqi Kurdish areas will vote in a referendum that is adding to the region’s tensions, as Joe Lauria reports from Erbil, Iraq.

By Joe Lauria

Fireworks are already exploding here in Erbil as Iraqi Kurds rally in football stadiums and drive down thoroughfares, horns blaring and Kurdish flags flying, as though they are already a sovereign state as they gear up for an independence referendum from Iraq on Monday that is setting off political fireworks in the region.

Kurdish independence supporters look on from overpass, Erbil,
Iraq, Sept. 22, 2017. (Photo credit: Joe Lauria)

It is a foregone conclusion that the independence vote will receive at least 90 percent support. It is also certain that the vote will not immediately change the legal status of the Iraqi Kurdish region from the semi-autonomy it already enjoys. But the possible overreaction of Baghdad and its neighbors to the vote has injected fear and uncertainty about what happens after Monday.

Longtime Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani has made it clear that a vote for independence does not mean an automatic declaration of independence,

though many Kurds I’ve spoken to believe that after Monday Kurdistan will become sovereign. Instead Barzani has said he will use the referendum results as leverage in negotiations with the central government in Baghdad in the hope it eventually leads to Kurdish statehood.

“If it needs time, one year or at the latest two years, we can solve all the problems within these two years. And then we can say ‘goodbye’ in a friendly way,” Barzani said on Wednesday.

Nevertheless, Baghdad and the Turkish government in Ankara have issued threats. Military intervention would be an extraordinary step, though, leaving the disputed city of Kirkuk as the most likely place where violence may erupt.

U.S. Opposed to Vote

The United States, which has been a strong ally of the Iraqi Kurds, has publicly opposed the referendum. Along with Europe, Washington says the timing threatens the Baghdad-Erbil alliance against ISIS, which hasn’t been totally crushed in Iraq.

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