The Iraqi Kurdistan Referendum

By: Faustine Labbadi

The Referendum

Announced on 3 July 2014 by Masoud Barzani, then President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan finally took place on 25 September 2017.

Two years after it was held, the question arises as to its consequences, from a national, regional and international perspective.

We will first put this vote back into the context in which it took place, then explain its rationale – what motivated its organizers and their expectations as to its outcomes - and finally discuss the political and diplomatic consequences the referendum had in practice.

The Context

The first official declaration in support of Iraqi Kurdistan's independence took place in 1919 at the Paris Peace Conference following the first World War. General Cherif Pasha, representing the Kurdish delegation, advocated the idea of an independent ‘Greater Kurdistan’:

"According to the Wilson’s principles, everything pleads in favour of the Kurds, for the creation of a completely free and independent Kurdish state (…).

We ask for this independence that is rightfully ours and that alone will enable us to fight for progress and civilization, to exploit the wealth of our country, and to live in peace with our neighbours”.

This demand remained a dead letter, and shortly thereafter, Iraq and Syria were created under British and French mandates.

However, the Kurdish issue was not forgotten, and on 10 August 1920, Section III of the Treaty of Sèvres provided for the creation of an independent Kurdish State. However, the treaty was never applied.

During their occupation, the British and French authorities discussed at length the question of a Kurdish territory, which was also the focus of Turkey's endeavours.

This was followed by a first referendum on the question of independence on 6 May 1921, organised by the British authorities in Iraq, first held only in the city of Suleimaniyah.

The results were clear; 83% of voters opted for independence from Iraq, 16% had no opinion, and only 1% expressed their wish to be included in Iraq. Defeated, the British authorities put an end to the process and repressed the Kurds who had risen up.

The city fell under the occupation of the British kingdom and Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji, self-proclaimed leader of the region was captured.

Finally, the Kurds were integrated in different states; Syria, Turkey, Iran and Iraq, governed since August 1921 by King Faisal.

The Kurdish question lost momentum until 1961, which marked the beginning of nine years of Iraqi Kurdish insurrection, led by Mustafa Barzani and his party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

On 11 March 1970, the ceasefire agreement between Saddam Hussein, then Vice-President of the Republic of Iraq, and Barzani, gave a new impetus to cooperation between the Iraqi and Kurdish authorities.

The latter were granted rights; the appointment of a Kurdish vice-president, the legalisation of the KDP, the creation of a Kurdish region whose boundaries had yet to be defined, the use of the Kurdish language in the administration, the non-dissolution of the Peshmergas, and, in the long term, the creation of a Kurdish section in the national army.

The emphasis was no longer on independence but on autonomy, and on 11 March 1974, Baghdad chose this more nuanced approach and granted autonomy to the Kurdish people.

However, although promising, relations between the two deteriorated until March 1975 and the conclusion of the Algiers Agreements between with the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who had until then supported the KDP, and Baghdad.

This event marked the end of Iran's support for the Kurds fighting against the Iraqi regime and thus put an end to any possible agreement.

The escalation continued, with a disastrous peak in 1988, when the Iraqi state set up the ‘Anfal Program’, meant to eradicate the Kurdish population. The death toll was 182,000, found only in 2003 after the fall of the Saddam regime.

However, in 1991, after the first Gulf War, the Kurds obtained a de facto autonomous region in northern Iraq, with their own parliament and government, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), partly through the support of the Americans.

The newly autonomous region was controlled by the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

The former, founded by Masoud Barzani's father, Mustafa Barzani in 1946, represents the traditional-conservative branch of Iraqi Kurdistan. The PUK, founded in 1975 by Jalal Talabani after a split with Barzani, is marked by a social-democratic identity.

The independence approach came back to the fore on 14 July 2003, when the "Movement for the Referendum" was formed, composed of Kurdish intellectuals.

It held an unofficial referendum on 30 January 2005, the results of which left no room for doubt: 98% of voters were in favour of an independent state.

In 2003, the Americans overthrew Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad, greatly assisted by the Kurdish Peshmerga army.

The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), established as a transitional government after the invasion of Iraq by the United States, the United Kingdom and the international coalition, then recognized the establishment of a Kurdistan Region.

Erbil, the newly established capital, and Suleimanye, the second largest city in Kurdistan, were recognized as being a part of it.

Finally, following a popular referendum on the adoption of the new Constitution of Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan obtained the status of an autonomous political entity in northern Iraq.

In 2014, Kirkuk and other disputed territories came under its control, while a merciless struggle was being waged against the Islamic state.

The Interests at Stake

It is precisely the very issue of the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) that partly underlies the independence claims of the 2017 referendum organizers. Indeed, a fierce struggle between the Kurds and ISIS had been going on for three years before this vote was held.

This war allowed an unprecedented partnership between the Kurdish and Iraqi armies, and the Peshmergas had a fundamental role in the decline of ISIS.

They were the first on the front line, and this effort was openly supported by the Iraqis and the international community, which transferred weapons, military training and funding in order to encourage their counter-offensives alongside the Iraqi army.

According to Barzani, this valuable assistance reinforced his hope that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would be recognized by the international community.

The referendum organizers believed that the change in regional circumstances and the increasing foreign support could have been the basis for the success of their project.

Similarly, international collective opinion was in favour of the Kurds, who hoped that this would contribute to the recognition of the referendum by foreign powers.

Consequently, they decided to hold this vote as a way to take a first-step towards independence.

The idea was therefore not to automatically change the sovereignty of the Kurdistan region of Iraq (KRI), but to secure the territories acquired over the years and to gain the assurance that they would not face an armed aggression from Iraq or any other regional army.

However, their sacrifice has not been rewarded politically; as soon as the referendum was officially announced, objections were quickly raised.

First of all, within Kurdistan itself. Soon enough, the Movement for Change (or Gorran Movement) and the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG) expressed their dissatisfaction.

In their view, the Kurdish Parliament in Erbil, which had not met since October 2015 due to a political crisis between the KDP and the Gorran Movement, was not in a position to provide for a legal framework for this election.

On this basis, they argued in favour of postponing the vote. Within Iraq then; the federal government feared a transfer of sovereignty from Baghdad to the KRI of the disputed territories, a definitive takeover by Erbil of the natural resources that Baghdad was trying to recover, and a future increase in Kurdistan's diplomatic foreign relations.

Opposition was also heard at the regional level. By Iran in particular, which in August 2017 invited a delegation from the PUK to express its official rejection of independence:

"The Islamic Republic of Iran warns against this bad decision, which constitutes a flagrant violation of Iraq's territorial integrity and national sovereignty, and stresses once again that (...) any measure creating new crises in the region and on the borders of Iraq's neighbours will be intolerable".

In Turkey, Erdogan declared that "taking a step towards the independence of northern Iraq is a mistake and a threat to Iraq's territorial integrity... We have always defended Iraq's integrity and we will continue to defend it”.

Finally, to the despair of the Kurdish independence advocates, the international community, let alone Israel, was also hammering its opposition.

On 14 September 2017, a delegation representing the United Kingdom, France, Germany and the United States, chaired by the White House Special Representative, Brett McGurk, put pressure on the KRG to renounce this "right to divorce and remain in the Iraqi family".

The next day, a White House statement warned the Iraqi Kurds: "We call on the Kurdish regional government to abandon the referendum and enter into a serious dialogue with Baghdad, in which the United States has always been ready to play a facilitating role".

Faced with the possibility of an US-backed alternative to the referendum, Barzani considered that their promise to “respect the results” did not constitute a sufficient security and consequently refused to postpone the holding of the referendum.

However, a majority of the Kurds stood their ground. According to Masoud Barzani, "The risk of independence is less serious than the risk of remaining with the Iraqi state".

Thus, on 25 September 2017, a referendum on the independence of Kurdistan, of an unprecedented scale, was held on a territory of approximately 80,000 km2, including the disputed territories.

The Consequences

With a turnout reaching 72% of the Kurdish electorate and a total result of 92.73% of the votes in favour of independence, the referendum was a plebiscite.

Yet, condemnations of the latter were immediately raised; Iraqi government seized Kirkuk again on 16 October, and in particular its oil wells which constituted a gigantic source of revenue for the KRG.

It took control of disputed territories under the Peshmerga’s control in northern and eastern Iraq, and prohibited any international flights over the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

Regional leaders soon expressed their disagreement. In Iran, we could read in the government newspaper dated from 27 September that Masoud Barzani "diverted attention from the fight against Daesh (ISIS) in the Middle East" and "thus did the Islamic state fighters a favour and hindered the fight against terrorism. Didn't Barzani push the people of Kurdistan into an expensive adventure just to get rid of their problems as a leader?".

On the Turkish side, the time has come for concerns about 'separatist fever'. Indeed, Turkey is populated by 12 to 15 million Kurds, and fears that the Kurdish impetus within Iraq could spread into its own population.

The international community, including the Western powers previously allied with Iraqi Kurdistan, was and is still strongly critical of the holding of the referendum and its results.

It refuses to recognize the legality of such a vote; the United States notably quickly joined forces with Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi to try to get the Kurds to cancel the results of the vote.

Within Kurdistan, the situation has also deteriorated significantly. Masoud Barzani, abandoned by the international community, finally resigned one month after the referendum on self-determination was held.

On November 11, he told CNN: "We thought the people who were verbally telling us they were our friends, and would support us, that they would have supported us or if not stay silent. But it was clear that we were alone with our mountains.

Not only did they not support the Peshmerga, but the Peshmerga is getting martyred with their weapons, and they were looking without doing anything”.

Since then, tensions have increased within the Kurdistan region. The leaders of the KRG and PUK are very divided, to such an extent that the latter, along with the Gorran Movement, denounced attacks directed towards their premises after Barzani highlighted their ‘high treason’ in particular for having abandoned the oil town of Kirkuk to Iraqi forces without resistance.

The referendum of 25 September 2017, which the pro-independence camp thought could help start discussions with the federal government, instead created a major setback in their struggle for independence.


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