Iraqi Kurds Face Tension from Iraq, Iran and Turkey after Independence Referendum

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On Monday September 25th, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) held an independence referendum on whether the KRG will begin to move towards independence from the Iraqi central government. Despite U.S. attempts to encourage the KRG to postpone the vote, and mounting economic and military threats from bordering countries Turkey, and Iran, the KRG moved ahead with the referendum.

As of Tuesday, September 26th, an estimated 300,000 votes had been accounted out of the roughly 3.65 million expected Kurdish voters. So far results favored the formation of an independent state 93.29%, to 6.71% against.
Many of the most crucial provinces have not yet reported in including: the Kurdish capital of Erbil, the hotly-contested and oil-rich province of Kirkuk, and the cities of Sinjar, Semel, Duhok, and Shekhan where there is a strong population of non-Kurd minorities including Assyrians, Turkmen, Yazidis, Sunni Arabs.

The Iraqi government has been strongly against the KRG’s vote for independence, and although it is not a binding decision, the implications of the referendum, the Iraqi central government argues the vote could have a destabilizing effect in the region. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi stated that the Iraqi government will not hold discussion with the KRG following Monday’s results because the referendum was “unconstitutional.”

In response to the Kurdish referendum the Iraqi parliament also, voted on Monday to deploy troops to Kirkuk and other oil-rich disputed territories with the KRG. Governor Karim  slammed Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s order to deploy troops to all the zones of the autonomous region of. Karim had said that the parliament has only issued decrees against the Kurds and has lost its value as a military body for the Kurdish people.

The Iraqi government recently deployed troops in the Hawija district  within the Kirkuk province, in an attempt to oust the Islamic State from the last prominent remaining city in Iraq. However, this attempt may also serve to counter referendum efforts.

Kirkuk is a vitally important city and province for the Kurdish referendum. The city of Kirkuk   is an ethnically mixed and oil rich province, however, it is not formally a part of the Kurdish autonomous region. Kirkuk is administratively dependent on Iraq’s central government, while security is provided by Kurdish forces.  Kurdistan holds 40%  of Iraq’s oil reserves. Kurdish leaders establishing the region in world oil markets is a crucial step toward eventual independence.  Even if the Kurds do not claim Kirkuk as part of their proposed independent state, the large oil reserves make a conflict possible if Kurdish independence is declared. Kirkuk is one of the most disputed territories of the Iraqi government.

In Kirkuk an overnight curfew  was declared by Kurdish-led governorate Najmaldin Karim to begin immediately after the voting ends. Karim said “I am calling on all the people of Kirkuk to calmly go back home and wait for the result… Let there be no celebratory shooting. Keep this shooting for when it’s needed to protect Kurdistan and the city of Kirkuk.”

The timing of the independence referendum is very important. The role of Kurdish forces in the conflict with Islamic State gives the Iraqi Kurds leverage towards establishing their own independent nation. Unsurprisingly, the surrounding nations of Turkey and Iran, and the Iraqi government strongly oppose the effort.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Monday has threatened war with Iraqi Kurdistan saying, “our military is not (at the border) for nothing…We could arrive suddenly one night.” He also proposed that the channels which the Kurds sell their oil be closed off. The KRG exports their oil production through Turkey, providing work for many Iraqi Kurds on the border.

Turkey has also blocked access to the KRG from the Habur border crossing. Traffic is being allowed to cross from the Turkish side of the border into Iraq but, not the reverse.

On Sunday Turkey launched air strikes  against Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) targeting northern Iraq’s Gara region, after on Saturday spotting PKK members preparing to attack Turkish military outposts on the border.

Iraq’s ministry of defense made a statement that it’s going to launch “large scale”  joint land military exercises with Turkey along their shared border following the results of the poll.

Iran, has also closed its border with the KRG as well. The land crossings into Iran were shut to Iraqi Kurdistan on Monday and on Sunday Iran halted all flights  into the northern regions of Iraq. Iranian government officials have called the referendum, “untimely and wrong.”

In conjunction with Turkey and Iran, Iraqi parliament also voted in favor of closing and has closed all border crossings into the Kurdish region on Monday in response to the referendum.

Overnight the Kurdistan election body’s website was targeted for cyber attacks, but none of the attacks were successful. The reported cyber-attacks originated from Germany, Iraq, Sweden and the United Kingdom. E-voting began on September 23rd for Kurds living in diaspora around the globe. In the diaspora,  there was an estimated 99,000 people eligible to vote.

The Iraqi Kurdish region and its disputed territories following the vote for independence are facing pressure and tension with the Iraqi, Turkish, and Iranian governments. The Kurdish regional government has made statements saying they want peaceful resolution, however, due to the increase in border blockades, and military initiatives by Iraq, Turkey and Iran, there is an increased possibility for conflict following the announcement of the election results.

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