Thursday, August 4, 2016

Is Kurdistan Serious About Independence From Iraq?

Kurdistan’s President Massoud Barzani is talking about independence once again. He said a referendum would be held by the end of the year, but there is no consensus on the issue amongst the main Kurdish parties nor the regional countries. Not only that, but the Kurdish Election Commission has not been asked to hold any vote yet, and would require a law by the Kurdistan parliament, which is adjourned indefinitely due to a political dispute between the region’s ruling elites. Given those factors it doesn’t appear any referendum will be held any time soon.

In February 2016 President Massoud Barzani issued a statement that every one has the right to self-determination and that the time was right for a referendum on Kurdish independence. He said such a vote would happen before the end of the year. This gained a lot of attention, but by the next month he was getting some push back already. A member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) told the press that one party alone could not lead Kurdistan towards independence, and that it would need the help of neighboring countries. President Barzani’s son Masrour Barzani claimed that the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) had consulted with Iran and Turkey about independence, but a spokesman from the Iranian Foreign Minister stated that Tehran stood for a unified Iraq. Ankara too is still an opponent of Kurdistan breaking away. Finally the third major Kurdish party Gorran stated that it believed in a referendum, but didn’t think it was time due to its political dispute with Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). No consensus thus exists on Kurdish independence right now either internally or externally. The PUK and Gorran do not want President Barzani dictating terms, and Iran and Turkey are still against the idea.

Besides the political differences no formal steps have been taken to initiate a referendum yet. In July, the Kurdistan Independent High Election Commission let it be known that it could hold a vote on independence in four months if all the parties agreed upon it, but it hadn’t been asked to yet. Additionally, the KRG’s parliament would have to convene and pass an election law to set up the rules for any referendum. The regional parliament has not met since October 2015 when the KDP dismissed Speaker Yusuf Mohammed from Gorran and his party’s four ministers over a dispute over Barzani’s presidency. That began when Barzani’s term ended in August 2015, and the ruling parties could not agree on how to extend his reign. The KDP also blamed Gorran for protests in the region, which all culminated in the KDP unilaterally kicking Gorran out of the government. Some don't think that the Kurdish parliament will meet again until new elections are held next year.

Another factor undermining Barzani’s independence call is the fact that he has made the same statements before and nothing came of them. For example, in July 2014 he called for a referendum on independence. That coincided with the Kurds seizing most of the disputed territories they wanted to annex after the collapse of the Iraqi Security Forces with the fall of Mosul. Barzani felt like the KRG was in a position of strength and made his announcement. Then again in December 2015 Barzani said that he would talk with the other ruling parties about independence. At that time Kurdistan was in the middle of its political crisis between the KDP and Gorran, as well as facing the collapse of oil prices that had sent the region’s economy into a tailspin. Like the current situation, the Kurdish Election Commission was never asked to hold an actual vote on the issue either of those times.

Kurdistan will eventually have its independence, but it will not be done on the whim of President Barzani. He always acts unilaterally on this issue, never consulting with the PUK or Gorran, which causes resentment amongst those parties. Without their support there will be no consensus or real moves towards independence. Even then the KRG would have to start extended negotiations with Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara to work out political and economic deals rather than just presenting independence as a fait accompli after a vote because the region doesn't have a way to support itself without the help of those capitals. That wont stop President Barzani from continuously pushing this issue, but until substantive steps are taken it will simply remain political rhetoric.


Abdulrazaq, Hawar, “Barzani: Kurdish Self-Determination Natural Right; Cannot be Denied,” Bas News, 2/3/16

AIN, “Bazani calls to find a mechanism for a referendum on independence,” 12/21/15

eKurd, “Iran rejects Masrour Barzani’s remarks over Iraqi Kurdistan independence,” 5/9/16
- “Iraqi Kurdistan News in brief – July 26, 2016,” 7/26/16
- “Iraqi Kurdistan News in brief – July 27, 2016,” 7/27/16
- “Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament could remain in limbo until next election: MP,” 6/13/16
- “Massoud Barzani calls for non-binding independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan,” 2/3/16

NINA, “A Leader in the Patriotic Union: The question of self-determination does not belong to a particular political party, but belong to the entire Kurdish people,” 3/31/16
- “PUK Rejects Proposal Of Taking Presidency of The Regional Parliament Offered By KDP,” 7/29/16
- “Talabani party: A referendum on Kurdish state requires Kurdish national consensus,” 6/25/16

Qaderi, Leyla, “Four Months Needed to Prepare for Independence Referendum: KIHEC,” Bas News, 7/25/16

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, “Barzani Says Iraqi Kurds To Vote On Independence Within ‘Months,’” 7/1/14

Reuters, “Iraq army retakes Saddam Hussein’s home village from Sunni insurgents,” 7/4/14

Sattar, Sardar, “Barzani: Independence the Only Way Forward,” Bas News, 7/25/16

Zaman, Amberin, “Massoud Barzani vows to fight corruption with same dedication as KRG has fought IS,” Al Monitor, 3/22/16

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