Erbil, Asharq Al-Awsat—An independent state is not a new dream for the Kurds. In Iraq, they accepted autonomy after the fall of Saddam, largely due to pressure from Turkey and the United States—but still, independence was never far from their minds.
Now, after the militant Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) swept across northern and western Iraq in June, complete independence may once again be on the table. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has declared it will hold a public referendum on the issue, to the support of Iraq’s anti-government Sunnis and consternation of supporters of Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki and other Shi’ite factions.
Far more than politics, however, the territorial integrity of Iraq and the possible borders of an independent Kurdistan are at stake. In early June, as ISIS rapidly took control of town after town, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces were able to secure a number of key regions while Iraqi government forces fled. Among the areas newly controlled by the Peshmerga is oil-rich Kirkuk, known as the ‘Kurd’s Jerusalem.’
The ISIS crisis, coupled with an effusion of Sunni discontent and the deep political stalemate caused by Maliki’s single-minded fight to secure a controversial and widely condemned third term in the premiership, had already provoked fears that all of Iraq could split apart. The results of the Kurds’ referendum could very well bring the issue to a fore.
The Sunnis, who are mainly critical of the central government for what they see as overtly sectarian, anti-Sunni policies, are certainly supportive of the Kurds’ new push for independence.
A spokesman for a Sunni tribe, Faiz Al-Shawoosh, told Asharq Al-Awsat: “We support any decision by the Kurdish people and leadership in terms of self-determination. The Kurds have the right to gain independence and establish their own state over all the territories they control, including the territories the Peshmerga forces took over after the events in Mosul.”
The Iraqi Tribal Rebels—an influential group of Sunni militias fighting government forces in cooperation with Islamist fighters—have also announced their full support of KRG President Massoud Barzani’s declaration his government will hold a public referendum on autonomy.
“We are in a democratic country. If the Kurdish people decide to secede, it will be their own decision. We would support them, because it is a majority decision,” said Saad Abu Risha, a member of the Tribal Rebels’ political council.
But even these Sunni groups, dissatisfied with the political status quo in Iraq, do not appear too ready to seek the partition of Iraq.
“Because they are an ethnicity, Kurds have the right” to establish an independent state, Shawoosh said.
But, because the Sunnis are a religious group, not an ethnic one—most of Iraqi Kurdistan’s residents are Sunnis, for example— Shawoosh explained Iraq’s Sunnis did not want their own autonomous region or state.
“Maliki wants to divide Iraq into Sunni and Shi’ite statelets. We reject religion-based states,” he said. “Countries should be based on ethnicities, not religions.”
But the opposition to the possible independence of Kurdistan from the Shi’ite sect, to which the prime minister belongs, seems to belie the idea that Maliki is planning to divide Iraq.
Ali Al-Shibr, a senior member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a key Shi’ite political bloc that has been trying to negotiate an end to the political crisis with Maliki through their Iraqi National Alliance, said he opposes the idea of Kurdish independence.
“The status quo does not allow this move towards partition, and Kurds should respect the unity of Iraq. All current MPs have taken an oath to defend the unity of Iraqi territory. What is the point of that oath if there are those who seek to divide and fragment Iraq?” said Shibr.
Shibr called Kurds to “head to dialogue in order to address problems,” indicating that “the presence of failures in the political process does not mean going ahead with the partition of Iraq.”
In Kurdistan, though, it is clear most political factions want the referendum and, eventually, independence.
The head of foreign relations for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Hemin Hawrami, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the subjective and objective circumstances in Kurdistan have changed. Subjectively speaking, Kurds no longer have territory-related problems, and there is a broad domestic unity among all Kurdish sides.
“Over the past 22 years [since autonomy was secured], Kurdistan has managed to set up its own state institutions in a proper manner and lay an economic basis for the state. Objectively speaking, equations in the Middle East have altered and dictatorships have collapsed and we can also see a shift in the balance of power has taken place after the Arab Spring revolutions.”
A senior figure in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Adnan Mufti, added that the decision to hold the referendum had not been rushed following the Kurds’ taking control of Kirkuk and other territories. He maintained that “the issue has been discussed for months among all sides in Kurdistan and the president of the region.”
With growing international support for the referendum and little reason to stay after months of political and financial tensions with Baghdad, Kurdistan seems increasingly unlikely to concern itself with Iraq’s many troubles.
Falah Mustafa, the Head of the KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations, said: “We have tried much to help Iraq, but unfortunately the other side has shown no will to accept a true partnership and coexistence.
“Practicing their right to self-determination does not make Kurds responsible for the fragmentation of Iraq.”