Kurdish nationalist movements have dreamed of an independent state ever since the breakup of the Ottoman Empire early last century and the birth of the modern Middle East. Now, Iraq’s Kurds are taking steps toward that elusive goal. Preliminary results suggest they voted for independence in a referendum Monday. Leaders of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region say a “yes” verdict will mark the beginning of a separation process rather than an abrupt splintering from the rest of the country. Iraq’s national government, as well as the country’s neighbors -- many with their own restive Kurdish minorities -- opposed the vote and have threatened to undermine moves toward secession.
1. What’s the likely outcome?
More than 93 percent of voters approved the push for independence from Iraq, with about 282,000 votes counted, the Kurdish Rudaw news agency said Tuesday. Massive pro-independence rallies had suggested it wouldn’t be close. The referendum posed one question: “Do you want the Kurdistan region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region’s administration to become an independent state?” More than 98 percent of Iraqi Kurds voted for independence in a 2005 referendum that did not result in statehood. Kurdish President Massoud Barzani has said this year’s vote is different because it was organized by the regional government whereas the previous one was arranged by activists without official approval.
2. Was there any organized opposition?
Businessman Shaswar Abdulwahid Qadir led a “Not for Now” campaign. He said the referendum was meant to distract from pressing problems that he argues the Kurdish Regional Government has failed to address. These include a shortage of basic services and a financial crisis sparked by a drop in oil revenue and an influx of refugees who fled the 2014 advances of militants of the Islamic State. Some Kurds objected to the referendum because, they argued, President Barzani is using it to entrench the rule of his Kurdistan Democratic Party, whose struggle for preeminence with its rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, erupted into civil war in the 1990s.
3. Who voted?
The vote was held in the three governorates officially ruled by the KRG, as well as in disputed areas currently controlled by Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga. The Kurds expanded their domain in 2014 when, faced with Islamic State attacks, the Iraqi army deserted the oil-rich city Kirkuk. The Kurds took parts of the city and its environs and now control significant oil exports.
4. What happens after the result is final?
There’s no mechanism for a part of Iraq to secede, and Kurdish officials from the president down say they will take their time arranging a divorce. Some observers contend that the Kurdish leaders don’t actually intend to pursue a split but rather want to use the referendum results to force the national government to resolve long-standing arguments over territory and revenue from oil sales. Among the biggest points of contention is the future of Kirkuk, which along with nearby oil fields produces about half a million barrels of crude daily. The national government says it owns Kirkuk and won’t negotiate it away.
5. Does Kurdish statehood have any backing?
Not really. Iraq’s parliament and top court have declared the vote unconstitutional. Neighbors Iran and Turkey oppose statehood, which they see as a precedent that could encourage Kurdish separatists in their own countries. The U.S. had pushed the Kurds to postpone the referendum, arguing it would add to instability at a crucial point in the fight against Islamic State. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made the same point and urged the Kurds to resolve their issues with the national government through diplomacy. Israel and Russia, the top funder of Kurdish oil and gas deals, are the only major players in the Mideast that didn’t call on Iraq’s Kurds to cancel the plebiscite; Israel alone encouraged the Kurds.
6. What might opposing states do?
Before the vote, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened sanctions against the Kurdish region if the referendum went ahead. Iran said it had closed its border with the Kurdish region at the request of Iraq’s government. Many analysts say irate neighbors are likely to wait and see what emerges from any talks between the regional and national governments following a “yes” vote before taking any major action.
7. Could Kurdistan survive on its own?
The Kurdish region has its own state institutions and armed forces, which have played a leading role in pushing Islamic State to the brink of military defeat in Iraq. It has also developed its own energy sector. But the region is landlocked, relying on Turkey and Iran for trade routes. Notably, it exports oil through a pipeline to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, on the Mediterranean. If its neighbors were to shut it off, as Erdogan has hinted, the region’s economy would shrivel.
8. What sets Kurds apart?
Numbering about 30 million in all, the Kurds are an Indo-European people whose traditional Kurdish homeland is today divided among Turkey, Iraq, Syria and Iran. Kurds have their own language and are mostly Sunni Muslims. In Iraq, Kurds make up about a fifth of the country’s 38 million people. When Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq, he displaced and killed countless members of the community, using chemical weapons at times. They were protected from such ravages when U.S.-led forces imposed a no-fly zone over Kurdish territory after the 1991 Gulf War. The enclave won a large degree of autonomy under the post-Saddam Iraqi constitution agreed in 2005. Kurdish nationalism deepened as the peshmerga scored battlefield successes against Islamic State and brought Kirkuk into the area under their control.
The Reference Shelf
- A multimedia guide on the Kurds produced by the Council on Foreign Relations.
- A report on implications of the Kurds’ fight against Islamic State by the International Crisis Group.
- A report on the U.S. partnership with Iraqi and Syrian Kurds by the U.S. Congressional Research Service.
- Related QuickTakes on the Kurds, Kurds in Syria, Iraq’s brittle nationhood, and Iraq’s oil.
— With assistance by Ladane Nasseri, Selcan Hacaoglu, and Khalid Al Ansary