The Cable

The Cable goes inside the foreign policy machine, from Foggy Bottom to Turtle Bay, the White House to Embassy Row.

Kurds Finally Set Date for Independence Referendum

The September vote will at the very least serve as a negotiating chip with Baghdad, sure to fight the departure of the oil-rich province.

By , a deputy news editor at Foreign Policy, and
kurds
kurds

Iraqi Kurds have finally set a date for their long-discussed referendum on independence from the rest of Iraq, with the Kurdistan Regional Government calling for a vote on Sept. 25.

The decision, announced by KRG president Masoud Barzani on Twitter, and picked up by local and international media, is sure to spark a showdown with Baghdad, which has for years sought to keep the restive Kurds inside a barely functioning Iraqi state. Tensions between the capital and the oil-rich northern region have grown in the wake of the 2014 offensive by the Islamic State, in which Mosul -- Iraq’s second-largest city -- fell and where only the intervention of Kurdish peshmerga fighters saved Kirkuk, home to some of Iraq’s richest oil fields.

Kurdish officials said voting, on the straightforward question of “do you want an independent Kurdistan?,” would take place in regions including three claimed by Baghdad and the fiercely disputed territory of Kirkuk.

Iraqi Kurds have finally set a date for their long-discussed referendum on independence from the rest of Iraq, with the Kurdistan Regional Government calling for a vote on Sept. 25.

The decision, announced by KRG president Masoud Barzani on Twitter, and picked up by local and international media, is sure to spark a showdown with Baghdad, which has for years sought to keep the restive Kurds inside a barely functioning Iraqi state. Tensions between the capital and the oil-rich northern region have grown in the wake of the 2014 offensive by the Islamic State, in which Mosul — Iraq’s second-largest city — fell and where only the intervention of Kurdish peshmerga fighters saved Kirkuk, home to some of Iraq’s richest oil fields.

Kurdish officials said voting, on the straightforward question of “do you want an independent Kurdistan?,” would take place in regions including three claimed by Baghdad and the fiercely disputed territory of Kirkuk.

“We see it as an opportunity and we do not want to miss it,” said an official at the KRG delegation in Washington. The referendum, Kurdish officials insist, will be binding. “We are legally capable of holding the referendum without consulting Baghdad,” the KRG official said.

Kurdish officials had told Reuters this spring that any referendum — which has been mooted for years — would be legally non-binding, and would mostly serve to strengthen Erbil’s hand when it comes to direct talks with Baghdad on greater autonomy or a path to eventual independence.

An Iraqi government source told Foreign Policy that what was concerning was that the Kurds intend to have the referendum extend to Kirkuk, Makhmour, Shingal, and Khanaqin — all of which are disputed under the constitution.

In April, Ammar al-Hakim, president of Iraq’s ruling coalition, warned the Kurds in particular about trying to separate Kirkuk, home to big oil deposits, from Iraq. The city has long been a fault line between Arabs and Kurds inside Iraq, and became a target of opportunity during the chaos of the Islamic State onslaught three years ago.

Tensions between the Kurdish-speaking north and the Arab center and south of Iraq predate the creation of the country after World War I, when it was cobbled together from disparate Ottoman provinces. But the ouster of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein in 2003 cracked Baghdad’s stranglehold on the country — he’d used gas to suppress Kurds shortly after the 1991 war with the United States — and Kurdish aspirations for independence picked up steam.

Beyond cultural and linguistic disaffections, money has been a sore spot between Erbil and Baghdad. Under the Iraqi constitution, the Kurdish region is meant to receive a proportional amount — roughly 17 percent — of federal proceeds from oil exports. But Kurdish officials for years said Baghdad shortchanged the region.

That’s why starting in 2014, Erbil began directly exporting crude oil itself. Despite being landlocked, which meant initially shipping oil out by truck, Iraqi Kurdistan struck a deal with Turkey to pipe crude oil to an export terminal on the Mediterranean coast. For the first time, that gave the KRG access to global oil markets and a way to ease its own budget shortfalls, though legal uncertainties over just who owned the stuff still plagued the marketing of crude oil.

Though Baghdad and Erbil tried to make peace over the oil exports, tensions persisted, with mysterious explosions shuttering Kurdish pipelines and crimping its finances last year.

Correction, June 8, 2017: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of the KRG president.

Photo credit: SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

<span data-sheets-value="{"1":2,"2":"Keith Johnson is a deputy news editor at Foreign Policy."}" data-sheets-userformat="{"2":15233,"3":{"1":0},"10":0,"11":4,"12":0,"14":{"1":2,"2":0},"15":"Times New Roman","16":12}" data-sheets-textstyleruns="{"1":0}{"1":41,"2":{"6":1}}{"1":55}">Keith Johnson is a deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

More from Foreign Policy

Two unidentified military vessels off Taiwan
Two unidentified military vessels off Taiwan

Beijing’s Taiwan Aggression Has Backfired in Tokyo

Military exercises have stiffened Japanese resolve.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

How to Take Down a Tyrant

Three steps for exerting maximum economic pressure on Putin.

A Taiwanese military outpost is seen beyond anti-landing spikes along the coast in Kinmen, Taiwan, on Aug. 10.
A Taiwanese military outpost is seen beyond anti-landing spikes along the coast in Kinmen, Taiwan, on Aug. 10.

Why Doesn’t China Invade Taiwan?

Despite Beijing’s rhetoric, a full-scale invasion remains a risky endeavor—and officials think the island can be coerced into reunification.

Crosses, flowers, and photographs mark the graves of victims of the battles for Irpin and Bucha at the cemetery of Irpin, Ukraine, on May 16.
Crosses, flowers, and photographs mark the graves of victims of the battles for Irpin and Bucha at the cemetery of Irpin, Ukraine, on May 16.

Russia’s Brutal Honesty Has Destroyed the West’s Appeasers

Yet plenty of Western intellectuals and politicians still ignore what Moscow is saying loud and clear.