Iraq's Kurds Await Backlash After Millions Vote on Statehood

Updated on
  • Turkey hints at blocking oil exports Kurds need for revenue
  • Kurdish officials not expected to push for immediate secession

Iraqi Kurds Face Backlash After Referendum

Millions of Iraq’s Kurds voted in an historic referendum on independence on Monday, defying the dire warnings from neighbors as well as the government in Baghdad -- who must now decide how far to retaliate to an expected landslide in favor of secession.

Though the ballot was limited to areas under the control of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq, the repercussions will be felt farther afield. More than 30 million Kurds are dispersed across the borders with Syria, Iran and Turkey with separatist ambitions of their own. Brent crude climbed to a two-year high on Monday amid concern that a backlash against the vote may disrupt Kurdish oil supplies.

Iran and Turkey will likely unveil more measures “hitting diplomacy, business and trade,” Anthony Skinner, a director with U.K.-based forecasting company Verisk Maplecroft, said by email. The threat of military action will continue, though any armed intervention remains unlikely unless sectarian violence breaks out, he said.

The ballot took place in three provinces ruled by the KRG in northern Iraq as well as in disputed areas around the oil hub of Kirkuk. Early counting of 300,000 ballots showed more than 93 percent in favor of independence, the Kurdish Rudaw news service reported Tuesday. Kurdish officials said 3.9 million people were registered to vote.

‘Instability, Hardships’

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement the vote would “increase instability and hardships for the Kurdistan region and its people,” and called for all sides to “engage constructively in a dialogue to improve the future of all Iraqis.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hinted at a shutdown of oil exports the KRG relies on for revenue; Iran called the vote “illegal and illegitimate” and closed its borders with the Kurdish region at the request of Iraq. In Baghdad, parliament approved draft legislation ordering the closure of borders with Kurdistan, the return of disputed oil fields and the deployment of troops to areas under Kurdish control since the Islamic State offensive of 2014.

“Let’s see where the regional government of northern Iraq will make its crude oil flow, through which channels, and where it sells it from now on,” Erdogan said in Istanbul. The president also hinted at cross-border military operations: “We may arrive one night, suddenly.”

The Iraqi Kurds’ president, Massoud Barzani, said before the vote that their partnership with Iraq had failed. He called for calm and said he was ready for “very long” talks with the government in Baghdad -- possibly lasting years -- on issues from borders to oil exports and water once votes have been counted. Iraq has declared the vote unconstitutional.

Read More: Kurds to Vote for Statehood. Neighbors Say No Way: QuickTake Q&A.

“Barzani is playing a dangerous game of poker,” said Skinner at Verisk Maplecroft. “He is counting on Turkey, Iran and the U.S. not being able to sustain a united stance on pressuring the KRG.”

Some analysts have suggested Barzani is more interested in forcing the Iraqi government to resolve long-standing arguments over territory and oil revenue than pursuing a complete split. Kurdish businessman Shaswar Abdulwahid Qadir, who led a “Not for Now” campaign against the referendum, said it was being held to distract from domestic problems, including dire economic conditions caused by the plunge in crude oil prices and an influx of refugees fleeing Islamic State.

The Kurds, who make up about one-fifth of Iraq’s 38 million people, have longstanding grievances against the government in Baghdad. Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against them, displacing or killing countless members of the community. The enclave won a large degree of autonomy under the protection of U.S. air power in the 1990s, which was enshrined in the post-Saddam Iraqi constitution adopted in 2005. Since then, nationalism has deepened as Kurdish troops, known as peshmerga, scored battlefield successes against Islamic State and brought the city of Kirkuk under their control.

“The Iraqi government is not going to stand still and watch Kirkuk’s integration into Kurdistan, and the mobilization that we’re seeing is an Iraqi effort to reassert control over the contested territory,” said Ayham Kamel, director of the Middle East and North Africa at Eurasia Group. Any ethnic clashes “might become a pretext for much wider mobilization,” he said.

Turkey fears the independence vote could set back its own campaign to stamp out a Kurdish insurgency it’s been battling for three decades, but its officials have also expressed concern that a military response from Baghdad could trigger an exodus of Iraqi Kurds toward Turkey.

The vote was “laying the ground for hot conflict,” Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said.

— With assistance by Nour Al Ali, Zainab Fattah, Ladane Nasseri, Dana Khraiche, Selcan Hacaoglu, and Khalid Al Ansary

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