Iraqi Kurdistan: Country or Autonomous Region?

Updated: Aug 28, 2019

By: David Serpa

Is Iraq One Country?

Iraq, an Arab and Muslim majority country, is also home to other ethnic groups. The largest of these are the Kurds. Most of them, around five million, live in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Since the creation of the Iraqi state, Kurdish leadership has sought to strengthen their distinct identity at different points in time, leading to calls and efforts from the Kurds to separate from Iraq and form their own state. This included a referendum in 2017 where the population overwhelmingly voted to become independent.

The Kurds are furthermore spread across various parts of the Middle East; with significant populations in Turkey, Syria and Iran. There are few efforts to work towards a Greater Kurdistan that integrates all these territories, yet all of them separately make efforts towards their own independence or autonomy.

The aforementioned states are reluctant to let their Kurdish regions separate from their respective countries. Largely because of this, Western countries, with interests in the region such as the United States, generally take the same position and oppose outright secession.

Despite this, they have cooperated with some of these regions, especially with Iraqi Kurdistan, on various issues, primarily security-related ones.

Since the calls for Kurdish independence have resounded in recent times, most notably in 2017, it is worth exploring the arguments for and against the existence of such a state.

This article will explore the arguments for why Kurdistan should be independent from Iraq, focusing on the claims made by the Kurdish leadership; their different identity and ethnicity, its difficult relations with the Iraqi State, and its history, coupled with popular support.

This will be contrasted with the argument that they lack the capacity to become independent, the opposition from Iraq and its neighbours as well as possible repercussions, and the corruption in government.

Kurdish autonomy, but not independence

Many blame the Kurdish issue on the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1917, which laid the foundations for the demarcation of countries’ borders in the Middle East. It should be noted, that this agreement has been criticised by groups across the region and not just the Kurds.

Given the arbitrariness of this process, the Kurds were divided in four countries, with significant populations in all of them (Mackenzie, 2018).

Today, they are the largest ethnic group without a nation of their own. Despite this, for the past one hundred years, they have taken various actions to try to become independent from the countries they belong to, since they see themselves as a different people. Ever since present-day borders were drawn, Kurds have disputed them.

In 1970, for the first time, the Kurds in Iraq obtained recognition as an autonomous region by the Iraqi government (Salih, Fantappie, 2019). This included the creation of a regional Legislative Assembly and Erbil became the capital of the Kurdistan Region.

Still, Iraq was ruled by a single party which exercised much control even over Kurdish affairs. During the 1970s, there was much trouble between the Iraqi government and Kurdish groups, leading to many being expelled and killed from Kurdistan.

This dynamic continued, as the Kurds pushed for effective autonomy, leading to a Kurdish rebellion at the end of the decade of 1980. In response, Saddam Hussein’s regime responded with extreme aggression, using chemical weapons.

The 'Anfal Campaign' killed at least fifty thousand Kurdish civilians, and some countries have recognized it as a genocide (Beauchamp, 2014).

Eventually, the international community intervened in this situation. In 1991, the Kurds rebelled again after the Gulf War and Hussein responded with violence to put down these rebellions.

The international community did not stop Saddam, but intervened after setting up a "safe zone” in parts of Kurdistan, where the Iraqi army did not intervene.

Kurdish militias eventually expanded the zone to what it is today, and the Kurds set up a working government. This enabled the Kurds to enjoy self-rule afterwards.

However, between 1994 and 1998, the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties, Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), fought a civil war.

Barzani sought support from Saddam Hussein’s forces in order to defeat Talabani. The conflict was brought to an end by US mediation in 1998. This resulted in the division of Kurdistan, with two regions; one administered by the PUK and the other by the KDP.

As the US invaded Iraq aiming to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003, they were supported by the Iraqi Kurds. The Kurdish forces, called Peshmerga, also fought the Iraqi government forces. After this, things improved for the Kurds.

The US reciprocated their support in their fight against Hussein, hence they helped the Kurds in having a voice in Baghdad. Their regional autonomy was strengthened, and in 2005 all Iraqis, including the Kurds, agreed on a federal constitution to preserve the rights of all.

The constitution recognized the autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan and all the laws passed by the KDP government of Kurdistan since 1992 (Hiltermann, 2016).

Post-Saddam Iraqi Kurdistan

Partly due to the invasion of Iraq and the US support of Kurdistan in rebuilding and reorganizing the country, the region fared well in many aspects after 2003. It was more autonomous than ever and free from violent conflict.

In 2006, the KDP and PUK formally unified their administrations into a single Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) based in Erbil. Trade increased with other countries, especially Turkey, who became the largest investor in the region.

As Iraqi Kurdish relations with Turkey improved, it also increased its oil exports passing through the country. Largely due to these exports, the economy of Kurdistan improved significantly in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

Kurdistan’s voice grew in Baghdad and they received a fairer treatment than before. Jalal Talabani, the leader of the PUK, even rose to the position of Iraqi president in 2006. Thus, Kurdistan enjoyed greater political and economic stability.

However, this was not enough to stop many people from protesting the government when the Arab Spring was in full flare in nearby countries in 2011 (Salih, 2019). Why did people protest if Kurdistan was improving so much and so fast?

Kurdistan was doing very well, but mostly on the surface. Yes, the economy was growing fast, but not everyone was benefitting. Many believed the system was unfair, largely based on patronage and nepotism.

The leadership was also perceived as corrupt and working mostly to further their interests and enrich themselves, not even trying to unite the Kurds but rather dividing them. Members of both parties tried to antagonize the other to gain people’s support.

The Kurds became further divided as their identities became increasingly tied to their localities rather than all of Kurdistan. Free speech and opposition were largely restricted, including the violence with which police cracked down on protests in 2011 (Palani, Khidir, Dechesne & Bakke, 2019).

Rivals again?

While the economy was still growing during this time due to oil, problems emerged on another front. Barzani’s KDP had many differences with Nouri al-Maliki, Prime Minister of Iraq from 2006 to 2014, especially during his second term in office.

They had serious disagreements over a number of issues, including the status of the Peshmerga, revenue sharing, oil exportation, and disputed territories (Palani et al., 2019).

One of the big disputes was because Iraq halted its revenue transfers to Kurdistan. Under the constitution there was an agreement that 17 percent of the budget of the Iraqi government was to be transferred to the KRG every year.

But Maliki accused the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) of not delivering the agreed amount of oil to the State Organisation for Marketing of Oil, hence halting revenue transfers. Baghdad also pressured other governments to block the sale of oil that Kurdistan exported through Turkey.

A series of misfortunes shook Kurdistan around the same time. The halt of payments from Baghdad shrunk the KRG’s revenue, slowing down the economy. The oil blockage had a similar effect. Oil prices declined considerably, with very negative results for a region so dependent on oil.

In 2014, ISIS emerged on the global and regional scene, and made their presence felt in parts of Kurdistan, mostly in Kirkuk, meaning that Erbil had to devote resources to fight the terrorist group and was also damaged by them.

Eventually they were defeated and expelled from the region by the Peshmerga, after Iraqi forces failed. The Peshmerga thus expanded the territories under Kurdish control which were historically Kurdish.

The Kurdish Referendum

In 2017, after a few years in which Kurdistan’s democracy weakened, the KDP held a referendum asking the population if they wanted to declare independence from Iraq.

After the 2011 and subsequent failed protests, people became scared of repeating this strategy, and even when brave, knew that their efforts would not succeed for long.

This enabled the traditional parties to solidify their grip on power and control dissent.

But the conflict with Baghdad could not be easily controlled. Because of this, in 2014, Barzani re-introduced the idea of Kurdish independence, for the first time since 2003. He later expressed that this had become the new goal of the KRG.

The referendum was called for by the KDP. The PUK despite being the opposition, was put in a situation where it had to support the referendum. Initially it was seen as a move that would strengthen the ruling party, thus this put them at odds.

However, opposing the vote would be seen as unpatriotic and anti-Kurdish, hence they had to publicly support it. As a consequence, the referendum results showed that 92% of people favoured independence.

While the referendum shows that the Kurdish population of Iraq favors independence, few outside of Kurdistan reacted positively to these results. Most countries took a neutral or negative stance.

The United States for example said that it was not a good time for Kurdistan to seek independence and before it took place it even called for it to be postponed (Calamur, 2017).

The Americans were not happy that the Kurds did not agree to postpone the vote. The Turkish government threatened to cut off the flow of Kurdish oil through its territory (Zucchino, 2017). Erbil attempted to start negotiations with Baghdad to implement what the people voted for.

The Iraqi government was angered and would have none of that. It did not accept the referendum initiative at first, and the same with the results. Consequently, the Iraqi army took over territories disputed with Kurdistan, including Kirkuk.

The KRG agreed to freeze the results of the election to stop the advance of Iraqi forces and restore relations. Barzani later stepped down as president and the efforts at independence were temporarily abandoned (BBC News, 2017).

An Independent Kurdistan

It is necessary to examine the recent history of Kurdistan in order to evaluate their claims to independence. Even though the process that culminated in the referendum is over and the efforts to pursue independence are not so strong now, it is important to better analyse both sides. Independence movements are far from dead in Kurdistan and could resurface in the future.

The arguments laid out by the Kurdish leadership to justify the referendum form the basis of those that should be considered when evaluating whether Iraqi Kurdistan has the right to secede and if this would be the best decision.

We must consider how this would affect different stakeholders. The outcome for the Iraqi Kurds is the priority. We shall also consider whether it would be the best or at least not be too negative for Iraq, and to an extent, to the stability of the region.

Independence, some think, is the best and the right course of action for Kurdistan’s future. There are three arguments that have been widely used. Due to the disagreements between Baghdad and Erbil during Maliki’s second term, the KRG accused Iraq of plotting against them and violating the constitution.

Iraq, claimed Barzani, was not treating Kurdistan fairly. He claimed that “No crime was worse than the crime when Baghdad cut the source of living for the population of Kurdistan, including the milk of children. That is a crime no less than the chemical bombardment and the Anfal.” (Palani et al., 2019)

Criticizing Baghdad over recent problems and actions was to an extent fair. The KDP accused Baghdad of violating the Iraqi constitution, which was true for cases like cutting Kurdistan’s revenue. However, the Kurds had conducted similar actions.

The KRG violated the constitution multiple times, for example by occupying territories that according to the constitution did not belong to them. The role the Peshmerga played, protecting Kurdistan rather than Iraq, also went against the constitution.

Thus, if Baghdad violated the constitution this would not guarantee Kurdish independence, since they did the same.

Barzani was strong in condemning the role of Baghdad in Kurdistan’s economic crisis. It was detrimental for many Kurds and it was seen as an act of betrayal. Yet, splitting from Iraq would have the same effect; Kurdistan would not receive any payments from the central government, so its economy would not necessarily improve.

It is important to remember that this phase of dispute between Barzani and Maliki is over and now both countries have different leaders. Yet it is still useful to consider this situation since in the future similar tensions between Baghdad and Erbil might arise, and the present analysis would also apply to such a scenario.

With independence, the Kurdish economy would also be in danger due to actions from its neighbors. Kurdistan borders Iran, Turkey, and Syria, the other countries with a Kurdish population - which make up ‘Greater Kurdistan.’

Its independence would raise fears amongst all these countries that their own Kurdish populations might aspire for the same. As a consequence, Turkey, one of Iraqi Kurdistan’s biggest trading partners, would stop trading with them.

They already threatened with this and cutting oil flow through its territory in 2017. The other countries would most likely do the same. These countries would use these threats before independence occurs to dissuade the Kurds. If the Kurds are not dissuaded, the realization of these threats and the halt of economic relations with Iraq would make the Kurdish economy


Similarly, the reaction by Kurdistan’s neighbors will bring about instability in the region, where few would benefit, and certainly not most of the population. This could open the door for violent conflict coming from all sides.

While Kurdistan might have faced some turmoil in the last decade, it certainly is more stable than other parts of the Middle East, including much of the rest of Iraq. But in the event of secession, both the Kurds and Iraqis are likely to face greater uncertainty and instability.

Iraq’s mistreatment and negligence towards Kurdistan after 2010 was further equated with its past wrongdoings; Barzani presented an image in which Iraq’s recent behaviour was a continuation and a result of the history of the 20th century.

Emphasis was placed on past wrongdoings and historical grievances, which pointed to the difficulty for Kurds living under Baghdad’s rule. Iraq had already caused too much damage to the Kurds, so they found it hard to stay in the country.

What’s more, they were still doing so, thus the nature of the Iraqi government towards the Kurdish was essentially the same as before.

It is true that Baghdad and Erbil had many disagreements and problems after 2010. But to equate these to some of the atrocities that occurred in the 20th century and compare recent Iraqi administrations to Hussein’s is misleading.

After 2003, Kurdistan obtained more rights and recognition in the constitution, and increased its presence in the Iraqi government; PUK leader Talabani was the president between 2006 and 2014, and other prominent positions were also filled by Kurds.

There was no military conflict in this period either. Hence, the period after the American invasion and rapprochement between Baghdad and Erbil was certainly different from previous times.

Of course, the main reason why the Kurds want independence is because they are a different group of people, with a different history and culture, including language for example. All other arguments stem from this one.

Because of this, they argue, they should not have been part of Iraq from the beginning, yet this was a decision outside their control. The way borders were carved out split the Kurdish peoples and left them as minorities in different countries. Hence, secession would address and amend this and give them what they claim they rightfully deserve.

It is difficult to have a concrete, objective and full proof answer or resolution to this argument. Some people might believe that separate ethnic groups deserve a country of their own since there is no reason why they should share with a group with which they have little in common, especially when they express that is their will.

That is an exercise of self-determination, a right under international law. Others might say that this does not necessarily guarantee the creation of a new state.

The practice in recent history regarding independence movements shows that when a region is heavily oppressed or colonized, their claims to independence has more validity. Most of the former colonized or oppressed territories that became countries fall in this category (Sterio, 2018).

However, very few countries such as Kosovo or South Sudan achieved independence without previously being a colony. Yet in these cases there was systematic oppression by the government or extreme violence.

In cases more similar to Kurdistan, when a region is having some degree of trouble and even oppression, internal self-determination has been more common, and recognized by other countries.

Barzani tried to appeal to the issue of oppression and lack of consideration from the government, but possibly not at the right time. While this is true of their past, it is not so true of their present or very recent past.

Thirty years ago, it made more sense to grant independence to Kurdistan solely based on their treatment by the Iraqi government. The events in recent years (after 2003) and especially the current situation, by historical standards, clearly do not support Kurdish independence.

Many times, there are tensions between ethnic groups living under the same country when they do not have a shared history or culture.

Will there be Kurdish Independence?

At this point in time, autonomy seems to be the best strategic option for the Kurds of Iraq. Without international support, the country has little chance of surviving economic embargoes of surrounding countries.

As the world saw after the Kurdish referendum, few countries were willing to openly support the idea of Kurdish independence. It seems, the long struggle of the Kurds to form their own independent state will continue into the future.


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