At the end of World War I under the Treaty of Sèvres, the Ottoman Empire was partitioned into territories which included Iraq. The dissolution of the Empire left the Kurdish people distributed among several nations. On September 25, the Kurds will vote to claim their independence from northern Iraq in a historic referendum.
The northern provinces of Sulaymania, Irbil and Dahuk comprise the Kurdish territory. But the Kurds also believe they can claim Kirkuk where they have slowly expanded their numbers since the U.S. led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Under the Iraqi federal system, the Kurdish regional government is recognized as a semi-autonomous region. The current population of 35 million Kurds account for 17% of the total population of Iraq.
Last August, the Center for Peace and Human Security at the American University of Kurdistan conducted a poll which showed close to 80% of Kurds want independence.
However the referendum is being met with resistance from the Iraqi Supreme Court which has moved to block the vote. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has stated he will not hesitate to use force to keep the referendum from pushing through.
The position of the government of Baghdad is that the referendum violates the statutes of the Iraq Constitution. For the Kurds, any act which prevents them from exercising the power to vote is a violation of their rights.
But Iraq is not the only country that opposes the referendum.
The United States and its military coalition partners believe the referendum is ill-timed and ill-advised considering the group’s commitment to eradicate the forces of ISIS with the help of Iraq. The Kurds on their part feel their contributions to the fight versus ISIS have already earned them the right to claim independence.
The United States also believes that an independent Kurdistan will destabilise Iraq. The disputed province of Kirkuk is believed to be rich in oil which could spark territorial clashes between the Kurdish peshmerga forces and those from ethnic Turkmen, Iraqi forces and the Shiite militia groups.
There are also Kurdish factions that believe a move towards independence will affect the region economically because it has grown dependent of funding support from Iraq.
The United States plans to facilitate discussions between the Iraqi and Kurdish governments but the Kurds want assurances from the international community that it will recognize its status as an independent region if the referendum takes place.
Should the referendum proceed and the “Yes” vote wins, it does not mean the Kurdish region will automatically gain independence. This is because the results of a referendum do not have legal or binding force.
However, it will give Kurdistan a stronger negotiating position as it intensifies its bid to win its independence from Iraq.