The issue of Kurdish independence has recently become a hot issue. Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) President Massoud Barzani has started threatening succession due to his dispute with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Kurdish deals with oil majors have also led commentators to predict that Kurdistan would soon leave Iraq. A recent poll by the Kurdistan Institute for Political Issues found just fewer than 60% of Kurdish respondents supported the idea of independence. While a high amount, it was far below some earlier data collected in the years immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Rather than showing a decline in the belief of the Kurds one day achieving their sovereignty, the poll rather points to greater sophistication amongst inhabitants of the KRG of the problems facing them if they were to take the step of leaving Iraq.
At the end of September 2012, the Kurdistan Institute for Political Issues released a new public opinion poll. It asked 2,500 people in Irbil, Sulaymaniya, and Dohuk provinces whether Kurdistan should declare its independence. That included 978 people in Sulaymaniya, 892 in Irbil, and 596 in Dohuk. Out of those, 56.3% said they were behind the idea. Dohuk showed the strongest approval with 81.21% saying yes, followed by 54.82% in Irbil, and only 46.42% in Sulaymaniya. When a person said no to the question, they were asked why it was not a good idea. 49.28% said that Kurdistan had to develop further before it was ready to break away from Iraq. After that, 26.37% said that other countries would threaten a new Kurdish state, while 23.1% felt that the U.S. and international community would not guarantee Kurdish sovereignty. While a large percentage obviously supported the drive for Kurdish independence it was not an overwhelming amount. That was especially shown in Sulaymaniya where less than half said yes to the question. For those that said no there appeared a growing realization that will and desire alone would not make a successful new country. Countries that have large Kurdish populations of their own, who do not want them to push for sovereignty for example, surround Kurdistan. They are opposed to Kurdish independence therefore. Being a landlocked region that could prove catastrophic as its economy could be strangled if surrounding powers decided to limit trade as a result. Those are obvious threats however, which the Kurds have faced for decades. More importantly, around 50% said that Kurdistan needed to make more internal progress before it was ready for independence. No specifics were mentioned about just what that meant, but it could be any number of things such as the economy, which is underdeveloped, due to its dependence upon the government, oil, and imports, or any number of other issues. Whatever the reason many people now realize that Kurdistan is not ready for independence yet, despite all the press reports and political statements to that affect that have come out recently.
The 2012 poll is a decided change from previous accounts of Kurdish support for independence. In early 2004 for instance, a petition was circulated, which allegedly garnered 1.7 million signatures demanding Kurdistan’s independence. In January 2005, the Independent Kurdistan Referendum Movement held an informal vote, and claimed that 98-99% of respondents expressed support for breaking away from Iraq. At that time, the exuberance following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein made many Kurds feel that the next step might be their independence. The region’s leaders had other plans however. In March 2005, Jalal Talabani, the head of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, told Time magazine that while many people were pushing for Kurdish sovereignty it was not time yet. Instead, the ruling parties in Kurdistan were going to try to work within the new Iraq. Seven years later, the KRG is still part of the country.
Independence will always remain an issue within the Kurdistan region. Many Kurds do not feel like they are a part of Iraq, the economy is growing, major oil companies have decided to invest there, and President Barzani has brought up the issue several times, because he is not getting along with the prime minister. Still, the poll by the Kurdistan Institute for Political Issues shows that while a majority of those questioned support the idea, there is sobriety about whether it is the right time to do so. Logistically, there are many barriers such as the fact that the Kurdish economy is dominated by the government, which in turn gets 95% of its funds from the national budget making Kurdistan dependent upon the southern oil fields just like the rest of the country. There are also on-going political disputes between the ruling parties, which would likely be exasperated if the KRG moved towards independence. Many Kurds are beginning to realize these issues, which is likely the reason why the Institute received its results.
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