In northern Iraq’s main city of Erbil, the green, white, and red striped flag of Kurdistan, with its cheerful yellow sun emblem, is everywhere. It hangs on food stalls, homes, public and government buildings; it even hangs from taxi rear-view mirrors. But nearly a century after early Kurdish nationalists introduced the tricolor at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, it still belongs to no state.
Kurdish leaders hope to change this on 25 September, when the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) puts independence to a vote in a referendum that could create the world’s 194th country (196 if you include Palestine and the Holy See).
Although a ‘yes’ is the expected outcome of the referendum, with most Iraqi Kurds in favour of the idea of independence, if not the timing of the vote, it remains contentious. Iraq, the United States, Iran, and Turkey have all come out against the referendum, and it is not clear how much popular support the idea of holding the poll this month has amongst ordinary Kurds.
For years following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraqi Kurdistan enjoyed a trade, business, and construction boom, but this is now a fading memory and disillusionment with local politicians has grown. Many may be ideologically pro-independence, but whether they trust a political elite accused of cronyism, nepotism, and corruption to carry out a fair vote or run a state is another matter entirely.
But nationalism is still strong here. There are ties that bind: The Kurds speak the same languages and have a shared history and culture. There is also a feeling among some that given the vital role Kurdish fighters (peshmerga) have played in vanquishing so-called Islamic State, they’ve earned the right to a nation.
But will nationalism be enough to pull all this off?
Statesman, skyscrapers, and shepherds
Not so long ago, Erbil’s expansive horizon of modern malls, office buildings, and designer apartment blocks saw Iraqi Kurdistan proudly dubbed the new Dubai.
Then came a shock fall in oil prices and deteriorating relations with Iraq’s central government. The budget went unpaid by Baghdad, leaving the KRG struggling to pay salaries, while business deals turned sour. Then came IS. Many international companies fled and construction projects were abandoned.
KRG officials hope to regain this golden decade of Iraqi Kurdistan via September’s referendum, and in the capital they are adamant independence is the only way forward. But what appears to be driving this as much as any growing desire for self-rule is the notion that proceeding as a unified Iraq is completely untenable.
Sitting behind an enormous desk in Erbil, decorated with Kurdish memorabilia and awards, his uniform emblazoned with the Kurdish flag, Brigadier-General Halgwrd Hikmat, head of the peshmerga media ministry, told IRIN that Iraqi Kurds have given union a fair shot, without much in return.
“Before 2004, when Saddam was still in power, we had partial independence and little contact with Iraq. But after Saddam was finished, we decided to try to build a country [together] because Saddam was a dictator,” he said. “We’ve been working with the Baghdad government since then and, to be honest, we’ve got absolutely nothing.”
That nothing is political as well as financial: Hikmat complained that Kurdish votes in parliament have been ignored, and their proposals overlooked.
“We’ve been together with Iraq for a long time, but it’s reached the point when we can’t be with them anymore. We can’t work with them anymore,” he said. “We only want to be neighbours with them now.”
This sense of finality may be relatively new – KRG President Masoud Barzani, who leads the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), only announced the referendum and its date in June – but the rumblings of discontent have long been felt among senior figures in Iraqi Kurdistan, even if the three-year battle against IS obscured some of the underlying differences.
The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back seems to have been as much financial as political and top at the list of complaints from Kurdish officials is the central government’s failure to give Kurdistan its 17 percent share of the national budget for more than three years.
Budget anomalies have not been helped by Iraqi Kurdistan selling oil sale independently, particularly through a pipeline to Turkey. Pocketing profits for the KRG instead of pouring them into the central government coffers only made Baghdad more intransigent about the budget. “The equation is simple: you take 17 percent of the wealth, you hand over the oil you have,” former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told France-24 in early 2014.
Jutyar Mahmoud, a member of the region’s Independent High Elections and Referendum Commission, told IRIN that the KRG has had to cut public workers’ salaries by 75 percent and that even the peshmerga – on the front lines of deadly battles including Mosul – have received almost no payments for two years.
“Iraq cut the money. They cut medicines being sent to the KRG. They cut everything and left us unable to pay peshmerga salaries at a time when we were fighting Daesh,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for IS.
“We tried everything to work with Baghdad and we didn’t get anything,” Mahmoud said. “Independence is a last resort, but Kurdish people believe that an independent state is the only guarantee for us, not just for financial stability but also our safety and security.”
Times may be relatively tough in Erbil, but it is elsewhere that the financial hardship and insecurity are felt most keenly.
Some three million people across the whole of Iraq have been displaced by the fight against IS, and far from the modernity of Erbil, rural poverty is the reality for many.
On the road to Zakho, a main border crossing with Turkey, lorries hurtle dangerously fast down a battered road, while shepherds herd sheep home at dusk along its dusty edges. In Iraqi Kurdistan, modernity and tradition run, often uncomfortably, side by side. Opinions, too, are divided.
Preparing pickles in a roadside shop just outside Dohuk, teacher Mohamed enthused that the referendum was exactly what the people in Iraqi Kurdistan wanted, needed, and deserved.
But, at the opposite end of the country, outside the town of Choman, two young famers making evening tea on a makeshift fire beside the road had a different take.
“We will be voting ‘no’ to the referendum. There is not the suitable basis for conducting a referendum now,” said 22-year-old Safir, pointing out that the KRG’s parliament hadn’t met in two years due to internal disputes.
Safir also anticipated, in worried tones, that any salaries still paid by the central government in Baghdad would be cut completely if independence was declared. From his roadside perspective, the vote could make things much worse.
Beyond the recent financial complaints – and they are real – Kurdish people’s distrust of a unified Iraq has deeper roots.
In his office near the Hawija front line against IS, softly-spoken peshmerga commander Kemal Kerkuki told IRIN late last year that his forces were purely fighting to protect Kurdish territories.
“We are working for an independent Kurdistan not for Iraqi unity,” Kerkuri said, flanked by a large Kurdish flag and an IS drone shot down by his forces a few days earlier. “If I thought for a moment I was working for a unified Iraq, I would not stay here for one second.”
“We don’t trust the Iraqis,” he continued. “In the last 30 years we have faced five genocides, including with chemical weapons. It is actually shameful for us to stay in this country.”
There’s no question the Kurds have suffered at the hands of the central Iraqi government, most infamously when Saddam’s forces released mustard gas and nerve agents on the town of Halabja in 1988, killing an estimated 5,000 people.
This was not an isolated attack, but rather part of a longer campaign, known as Anfal (chemical), during the end of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, when Iraqi forces slaughtered tens of thousands of people in an attempt to quell the restive Kurds.
But Kerkuki went even further back, to 1916, when Britain and France carved up the Middle East: “When they drew a map for this region with the Sykes-Picot Agreement, they ignored the Kurdish people and Kurdistan,” he said. “So, for 100 years we have been in difficulties.”
For Kerkuki, the differences that make unity with Iraq unviable run deep.
“Everything about the Kurds and the Iraqis is different – our history, our tradition, our culture, our people, our lifestyles, our faces, our genetics – everything,” he said. “We can be good neighbours and friends, but not brothers. When anyone claims we are brothers, it is a big lie.”
Disputed territories, ineligible voters
Central to concerns about the Kurdish referendum are the so-called disputed territories of northern Iraq, including parts (or all) of the provinces of Nineveh, Kirkuk and Diyala. Historical ownership is disputed and the populations ethnically mixed. Under Saddam’s rule, many of these areas were settled by Arabs as part of his wider Arabisation policies.
For the most part, the different ethnicities have lived side by side, peacefully for decades. But since the recent offensives against IS, rights groups have documented post-liberation retribution by Kurdish fighters against predominantly Sunni Arabs they see as having supported the extremists, although the peshmerga’s Kerkuki was adamant that many of these reports are inaccurate.
The contested territories were outlined in the Iraqi constitution, ratified in 2005. At the time, a provision – Article 140 – was made that should have enabled residents to choose whether they wanted to remain under the control of Baghdad or the KRG. 2007 was set as a cut-off date for that referendum, but it never happened. Kurdish officials claim the central government has deliberately dragged its heels, repeatedly postponing the issue.
Officials say any segments of these disputed territories currently under Kurdish control will be allowed to vote in the referendum, but this doesn’t mean everyone will have a say. The electoral commission’s Mahmoud explained that in the hotly contested oil-rich province of Kirkuk, for example, only Arabs originally from the area will be eligible to vote, excluding anyone who has moved there since the start of Saddam’s regime in the 1970s.
Eligible voters displaced from their homes in the KRG or disputed territories will be able to vote via ballot boxes in camps. But Kurds living in parts of the disputed territories not currently under Kurdish control will not be able to vote at all. That’s simply a question of access, said Mahmoud: “Our borders are where the peshmerga are; so areas beyond that, including some IDP camps, will be impossible for us to access.”
Potential Kurdish voters in such areas are understandably upset at being disenfranchised.
Fear and discontent
At one border post between the KRG and Iraq, near Makhmour, battle-weary peshmerga expressed concerns that the vote could bring more conflict – something they’ve seen more than enough of in recent years.
“Maybe the new Kurdish state is going to be dangerous,” said one young soldier. “Maybe we’ll have a war with Iraq, and that’s not what we want. We don’t like war.”
The commission’s Mahmoud conceded that if independence is declared, a war based around border disputes was a real danger.
The official peshmerga position – one that resonates with many at home and abroad – is that Iraqi Kurds have effectively won the right of independence through their fight alongside Iraqi forces and other allies against IS. It’s clearly what Hikmat, at the peshmerga media ministry in Erbil, believes. “A lot of people have died for this cause,” he told IRIN. “We have had a lot of martyrs over the years; so of course the peshmerga answer is, ‘we have to get independence’, because that is what we have been fighting for.”
But one former peshmerga, a woman in her sixties, told IRIN she had made massive personal sacrifices for the Kurdish cause but been left poverty-stricken. “If they really wanted the public’s opinion, they could ask us. But they don’t care about our opinion. They’re telling us what to say,” she said.
Hitch-hiking near Sulaymaniyah and carrying a bag of onions she had walked 40 kilometres to collect, she added cynically: “Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the benefits will not be for the people, they will be for the politicians.”
On the outskirts of Kirkuk, two farmers selling fresh fruit and vegetables from a roadside stall were worried about the possible economic tensions ahead.
“The bulk of our fruit and vegetables go to Baghdad and we are terrified that, if they announce independence here, Iraq will close the borders and block the roads, and our future will be ruined,” said 47-year-old Hajarr. “If there was an agreement between the KRG and Baghdad about the referendum, it might be okay, but so far there is no such agreement in place.”
Other businessmen told IRIN that Baghdad is so reliant on the KRG and Turkish imports – Iran is a major source too – that imposing border restrictions would be out of the question.
“The central government in Baghdad is paying our famers for essentials like wheat and barley as well as some poultry and other foodstuffs,” said agricultural engineer Ibrahim Muayad Dawood, who works with a Russian trading company headquartered in Erbil. “Also, every product from Turkey or coming from other countries has to come through KRG’s land border. We are a land bridge between Turkey and Iraq.”
The leading proponents of the referendum promise that independence will bring increased stability and economic gains. However, pulling the poll off will not only mean overcoming internal scepticism but also performing a major administrative coup.
Six million Iraqi Kurds and long-term residents of Iraqi Kurdistan are expected to register, according to Mahmoud at the electoral commission. But an Iraqi ration card, along with Kurdish identification, is required to prove eligibility, and this has reportedly proved contentious as many in the diaspora no longer have these cards to hand.
In addition to the question of how voting in disputed territories will work, several other anomalies were still being ironed out weeks before the vote. Iraqi Kurds living abroad will apparently be able to vote electronically. Returnees who were born abroad – many came back during the oil boom – will also be able to vote if they have the necessary documents. But Kurds living in Iraq will not be eligible to vote unless their ID documents are registered in the KRG, a regulation IRIN did not find to be widely understood.
Of greater concern, while the majority of Kurds IRIN spoke to were at least aware that a vote was on the horizon, this was not uniformly true. Word did not appear to have reached the region’s northeastern border areas, where farmers move their families to fertile mountainous pastures every summer when the snows melt.
“Referendum? What is it?” asked one shepherd, perplexed. When it was explained to him, he shook his head and said: “I don’t understand what this is. I don’t know anything about it,” ushering his flock of several hundred sheep towards a valley.
Six weeks prior to the referendum, little effort appeared to have been made by the Kurdish authorities to reach these remote rural communities to explain the forthcoming vote. Mahmoud’s pledges of an upcoming education campaign would seem to be a case of too little too late.
What’s largely being ignored is that the bid for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan is really a watered-down version of the overarching Kurdish state once envisioned as including Kurds from Iran, Turkey, and Syria.
Turkey’s opposition to the referendum is born out of its reluctance to encourage Kurdish nationalism within its own borders. A nearly 40-year conflict with the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has left countless civilians dead -- the UN counted 2,000 killed in 18 months after a truce broke down in 2015.
In Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) runs the self-declared Democratic Federation of North Syria, with a presence from the opposition Kurdish National Council (ENKS).
Separatist movements in these countries have split (and split again), and to some extent the Iraqi Kurds are going it alone – with the help of exiled Iranian Kurds who have sought refuge in the KRG for decades, many of whom are part of the Democratic Party of Iranian Kurdistan (KDPI) or an associated branch of the peshmerga.
KDPI commander Aziz Seleghi isn’t eligible to vote but he is unequivocal in his support of the referendum, seeing it as part of the larger struggle for Kurdish nationalism.
“We support the referendum and we are ready to take any risk to defend the referendum if Iraq or Iran attacks us,” he said. “It was the same with IS three years ago. When they came, we went straight to the borders to protect Iraqi Kurdistan.”
Seleghi said the vote would send a clear message to the world that Kurdish people want independence and are determined to get it.
But another KDPI commander told IRIN that the KRG was widely viewed across the larger Kurdish region as betraying the Kurdish cause, particularly for brokering deals with Iran and Turkey, two countries accused of persecuting their minority Kurdish populations.
“We don’t like this capitalism in the KRG,” said a young KDPI soldier. “Many Kurds support this referendum, but the truth is that... [some senior political figures have] basically sold out Kurdistan. Independence like this is not what we wanted – it’s not what we have been have been fighting for and it is not good for all the Kurds.”
At a makeshift dining table in the orchard, where KDPI soldiers hung their weapons on olive trees while they ate meals, another soldier wrote out a poem in Persian on the plastic tablecloth. It read:
I live as a Kurd,
I die as a Kurd.
When they come for me,
I will answer in the Kurdish tongue.
In the next life, I will live as a Kurd,
And there I will make another revolution.
Whatever the outcome of the referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan in two short weeks’ time, the wider Kurdish struggle will be far from over.
Photos by Martyn Aim and Tom Westcott