Neighboring Nations Threaten Iraqi Kurdistan After 92 Percent Approve Independence

The Kurds of northern Iraq vote overwhelmingly to pursue their own homeland. Yet Iraq, Turkey and Iran are opposed to redrawing borders.

By Josh Shepherd Published on September 29, 2017

On Wednesday, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq announced that 92.7 percent of ballots cast favored Kurdistan seeking full independence from Iraq. More than 3 million people voted on the measure, intended as a basis for negotiation with Iraq and dialogue with the United Nations.

Hundreds of thousands of Kurds in Iraq celebrated the vote. Nearly as many Kurds in neighboring Iran also took to the streets in support. In Syria, Kurdish groups were optimistic the vote would help their own efforts for greater autonomy.

Iraq and Turkey Oppose Kurdish Independence

Yet surrounding governments, including the Republic of Iraq which encompasses the Kurdistan region, opposed the measure. They moved quickly to ensure the Kurdish initiative does not result in redrawing national borders.

In a show of force on Monday, the Iraqi army joined up with Turkish forces for joint military drills at the Kurdistan border. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi ordered a ban on international flights into the region. The flight ban will affect 400 Kurdish companies and 7,000 jobs.

“We will enforce federal authority in the Kurdistan region,” said Abadi in a televised address. “We will take the necessary measures to preserve the unity of the country.”

Having faced oppression across the Middle East, the Kurds have long sought independence.

Author of The Miracle of the Kurds, Stephen Mansfield has been a vocal advocate for independence. “The Kurds of Iraqi Kurdistan have been good neighbors to all the nations that now punish them for choosing freedom,” he told The Stream.

“The world’s 35 million Kurds deserve a homeland of their own,” Mansfield continued. “Denying this claim is tyrannical and a surrendering of legitimacy.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan threatened to cut-off trade entirely. “They will not be able to find food when our trucks stop going to northern Iraq,” he said. Since last year, the Erdoğan regime has detained more than 100,000 people including journalists. In an interview, KRG Prime Minister shot back: “If the sanctions are imposed, they will affect people. But no one will starve.”

Kurdistan Receiving Some Early U.S. Support

Having faced oppression across the Middle East, the Kurds have long sought independence. They have governed as the KRG with relative autonomy since 2003, when U.S.-led coalition forces toppled the Saddam Hussein regime.

Two Members of Congress spoke out in support of the KRG this week. “The Kurdish people of northern Iraq have my utmost support,” said Chuck Schumer, the top-ranking Senate Democrat. “The position of the United States government should be to support a political process that addresses the aspirations of the Kurds.”

In the House, Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., presented a new resolution. “The Kurdistan Region of Iraq has provided refuge and aid to nearly two million refugees and internally displaced persons during the course of the Iraqi and Syrian civil wars,” it begins.

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H. Res. 534 continues: “Their armed forces, known as ‘Peshmerga,’ have sacrificed almost 2,000 fighters during operations against the so-called Islamic State.” The Peshmerga have served alongside U.S.-led coalition forces. The resolution extols the KRG’s “commitment to human rights, and the legal and moral case for self-determination.”

Barzani Family Will Not Seek Presidency

Some policy experts raise concerns about the Barzani family’s power in the KRG. Massoud Barzani, age 71, has served as President since 2005. His nephew has been Prime Minister for the past five years.

“Massoud Barzani is a narrow, tribal, provincial leader,” wrote Michael Rubin, resident scholar at American Enterprise Institute. “Those who embrace Barzani as the face of freedom or progressivism will be embarrassed down the road.”

The KRG announced that regional elections for the presidency and parliament would continue as planned for November 1.

Twenty-one political parties plan to run candidates. “Barzani has already said that he will not run for the presidency,” reports local media. “He also ruled out any of his family members making a bid for the top post.”

The United Nations issued a terse statement on Monday, calling the referendum “potentially destabilizing” for the Middle East.

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