The partition of Iraq lurched closer to reality on Tuesday when the head of the country’s already quasi-autonomous Kurdish region publicly declared he would schedule a referendum on independence. Polls and previous votes indicate that the measure is certain to pass, leading, in all likelihood, to an independent Kurdistan on the northern and northeastern borders of Iraq.
“From now on, we won’t hide that that’s our goal,” Massoud Barzani, president of the Regional Kurdistan Government, told the BBC in an interview. “Iraq is effectively partitioned now. Are we supposed to stay in this tragic situation the country’s living? It’s not me who will decide on independence. It’s the people.”
The referendum will come in “a matter of months,” Barzani said. He said the Kurdistan parliament must first establish an independent electoral authority, then establish the date for the referendum that Barzani made clear will end with the creation of a state.
“We hope that this state will have the best of relations with all of its neighbors, and we will not be a threat to anyone at all, I’m sure.”
The announcement was a body blow to the frantic political effort to hold the country together after Sunni extremists allied with local tribes took control of much of the country’s west and north, including Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Their advance was driven by both the military daring of the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, and angry frustration of Iraq’s more moderate Sunni Muslims rebelling against the frankly sectarian rule of Prime Minister Nour al-Maliki, who openly favors the country’s previously oppressed Shiite majority.
Efforts to discard Maliki and form a more inclusive new government based on April election results have so far failed to produce a result. The new parliament adjourned on Tuesday in its first session when Sunni and Kurd lawmakers failed to return from a brief recess.
The Kurds, an ethnic group with its own language and heritage, account for about 17 percent of Iraq’s population of 32 million, and have wanted an independent state for generations. Apart from an empty promise from Woodrow Wilson in the aftermath of World War I, they have come closest in the last 20 years, beginning in 1991, when the United States enforced a no-fly zone over their territory to protect them from Saddam Hussein’s forces in the aftermath of the First Gulf War. Kurdish parties exploited the autonomy to set up their own quasi-state, which became more formal after U.S.-led forces deposed Hussein in 2003. The KRG “regional government” boasts a parliament, military, foreign minister, oil wells and border guards who challenge non-Kurds at roads leading from the rest of Iraq.
Actual independence came within reach when ISIS and its local Sunni allies swept across the country’s north in June. Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, or “those who face death,” swarmed into Kirkuk, an oil-rich city that Kurds regard as their historic capital, and refused to leave. They did the same in 2003, but departed under pressure led by nearby Turkey, which has since become a formidable ally, giving it crucial assistance exporting oil.
In the BBC interview, Barzani appeared prepared to hold Baghdad hostage to Kurdish aspirations. While he did not rule out using Kurdish forces to help repel ISIS, he said they were currently prepared to engage the extremists only if they only if they threaten Kurdish territory. Going beyond that, he said would first require concessions from Baghdad: “If you mean a comprehensive solution in all Iraq, there has to be a political solution and real participation, involving all components of Iraqi society. In that case, we’ll have no hesitation in playing a part.”
“Of course we’ll help all our Arab and Sunni brothers to get out of our crisis,” Barzani said. “But that doesn’t mean we will abandon our goal and our basic project, which is the independence of Kurdistan.”