Iraqi Kurdistan Prepares for a Vote That Will Shake Nations

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In less than a week, the largest nation in the world without a state of its own — the Kurds — may finally hold a vote on whether to declare one. The approaching independence referendum, which Iraqi Kurdistan has planned for Sept. 25, marks the culmination of a long-running battle between the Kurdish government in Arbil and the central government in Baghdad. Thanks to the former's disarray and the latter's international backing, the vote seems doomed to fail in producing a distinct territory that the Kurds may call home. However, it could set Iraqi Kurdistan on a path toward greater autonomy, shaking the region from its stagnation and threatening further instability in the volatile Middle East.

A Cause That Unites and Divides

Though a familiar (and often futile) refrain throughout Iraq's history, calls for Kurdish independence have recently reached a crescendo. To most Iraqi Kurds, the referendum is a legitimate attempt to increase their autonomy from a central government that they believe to be unresponsive to their needs. Moreover, many within the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) believe that the promise of a vote — whether or not it is actually held — will help solve the troubled region's financial and political woes by giving Arbil leverage over Baghdad in the governments' negotiations over budget battles, the distribution of oil revenue and the status of disputed territories.

The rest of Iraq views the vote differently. Baghdad, along with citizens in the country's central and southern regions, has cast the plebiscite as a controversial and unconstitutional effort to destroy Iraq's territorial integrity and rob it of coveted land on the nation's fringes. The central government also worries about the precedent a Kurdish referendum might set for other regions of Iraq that have flirted with the idea of seeking more autonomy.

As history has shown, though, translating the referendum's likely "yes" result into action won't be easy. After a vote in favor of independence in 2005, Kurdish officials were thwarted in its implementation by a process rife with political and legal barriers. Many of those obstacles persist today, including infighting among Kurdish parties. Though many of Iraqi Kurdistan's factions support the plebiscite that the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) has championed, they disagree with the ruling party's motives. After all, the KDP hopes to use the vote as a mandate to keep Kurdish President Massoud Barzani or his son in power, maintaining its control over the KRG's economy in the process.

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For Arbil, an Uphill Battle

Aided by inertia and the country's distraction with the Islamic State's rise, the KDP has had little trouble keeping its grip on Iraqi Kurdistan for the past few years. In fact, Arbil's participation in the fight against the extremist group has helped sway public opinion in favor of allowing the president to extend his tenure in the name of security. At the same time, Kurdish and Iraqi officials have temporarily set aside their deep-seated differences to beat back their common enemy.

But as the campaign against the Islamic State comes to an end, sparring between Arbil and Baghdad has begun to resume, driven in part by the looming independence vote. And given the immense popular support behind the initiative, it will likely be tough to stop. Nevertheless, the Gorran party is determined to try. Prominent members of Gorran, the second-largest party in the Kurdish parliament, have spearheaded a campaign to stall the referendum in hopes of weakening the position of their longtime KDP rival at the head of Kurdish politics. Though in the past the opposition party has proved willing to negotiate with its political competitors on matters related to oil revenue-sharing and the payment of civil servants' salaries, it has consistently refused to budge in its dissent regarding Barzani's extended presidency. Unless an opportunity arises to install an alternate candidate, Gorran and its allies will continue to try to block many of the KDP's proposals.

Meanwhile, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) — the third-largest party in the Kurdish Parliament — has remained steadfast in its support of the referendum and the KDP. Just last week, the smaller organization backed the ruling party's play to reopen the shuttered Kurdish Parliament so that lawmakers could issue a decision on the vote in time for its scheduled kickoff on Sept. 25. The PUK, however, is so deeply fractured that it has become an unreliable partner. The party's divisions were on full display Sept. 16 when prominent PUK leader Barham Salih defected to form a new ticket ahead of the KRG's presidential and parliamentary elections on Nov. 1. These electoral contests will lay bare the rifts running throughout Kurdish politics, regardless of whether the independence referendum takes place as planned.

Baghdad, for its part, is exhausting every legal avenue it has to make sure the vote is canceled. A nonbinding resolution by the Iraqi parliament, a ruling by the Federal Supreme Court of Iraq and firm statements by the prime minister have all challenged the constitutionality of the referendum and have demonstrated the central government's willingness to wield its legislative and judicial power against Arbil. Baghdad will continue to use these tools, and others, to try to coerce the KRG into delaying the vote in exchange for economic and political concessions. Because the two governments boast loyal military forces, however, there is a considerable risk of clashes breaking out as each side defends its interests and the territories both claim as their own, such as Kirkuk.

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A Local Vote With Regional Impact

Though only Iraqi Kurds are participating in the referendum, its consequences will extend well beyond the bounds of the KRG and into the Kurdish communities of Iran, Syria, and Turkey. Estimated to number some 25 million to 30 million throughout the Middle East, the Kurds live on lands that stretch across several countries' borders, and the century-long quest for statehood has repeatedly galvanized them all. Because of the overlap in the region's Kurdish communities, two of the KRG's closest neighbors — Turkey and Iran — have watched preparations for the referendum with mounting trepidation. Though long-standing rivals, Ankara and Tehran grapple with Kurdish insurgencies and secessionism at home, and in trying to stop the approaching plebiscite, they have found common ground.

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Of the two, Turkey has more reason to be concerned about the vote. Home to a larger Kurdish population spread over valued arable land and strategic territory, Turkey faces more severe ramifications within its borders than Iran does in the event that Iraqi Kurdistan declares independence. In fact, Ankara's determination to prevent the Kurds from carving out a space of their own was one of the primary motives behind its military intervention into northern Syria in August 2016. Turkey will continue to work toward this goal, maintaining its pressure on Syrian Kurds while pounding the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) in northern Iraq. Ankara has already threatened to ramp up its military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan if the PKK, which has waged an insurgency within Turkey's borders, continues to threaten its security. Ankara could even increase pressure by using its position as one of Arbil's largest trade partners and as the host of a Kurdish oil pipeline to cut off energy revenues to the KRG. In addition, some rivers that feed into Iraqi Kurdistan flow through Turkey, giving Ankara the ability to curtail the region's water supplies.

While Iran has a smaller stake in events in Iraqi Kurdistan, it, too, has an interest in blocking the referendum. Tehran maintains a close relationship with Iraq's central government and strong ties to many of the Shiite militias that are loosely under Baghdad's control. Some of those groups have condemned the approaching vote for fear of losing the country's disputed territories to Arbil and have moved fighters into heavily contested areas, including Diyala and Kirkuk. On Sept. 17, Iran's National Security Council chief backed the militias by vowing to close Iran's border with the KRG, blocking the passage of goods and people across it.

The Kurds do enjoy the support — at least rhetorically — of one of the most powerful external actors with a foothold in Iraqi Kurdistan: the United States. Washington, long an ally of the KRG, is sympathetic to the Kurds' push for greater autonomy. But for the United States, timing is everything. An independence referendum could disrupt the international fight against the Islamic State, which will not end for several more months. Concerned about Tehran's attempts to gain influence over Baghdad, Washington would also prefer that Iraqi leaders have the ability to prepare for the country's 2018 elections without having to address the problem of a Kurdish referendum.

Over the past few years, the United States has funneled hundreds of millions of dollars to Kurdish peshmerga fighters combating the Islamic State. In theory, Washington could try to leverage some of this aid to persuade Arbil to postpone the vote. Since doing so could be detrimental to the coalition against the extremist group, however, U.S. officials will likely stick to less contentious tactics as it asks the Kurds for patience in their pursuit of independence. At best, they will acquiesce and use the specter of the referendum (or the mandate it yields) to revive stalled talks between Arbil and Baghdad. At worst, the Kurds will dig in their heels, worsening the conflict between Iraq's north and south while giving foreign players an excuse to intervene as they seek to protect their own interests.

Iraqi Kurdistan Prepares for a Vote That Will Shake Nations is republished with permission from Stratfor.com.

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