On Monday, September 25th, voters in Iraqi Kurdistan overwhelmingly chose independence from Iraq, preparing the way for the creation of the world’s only predominantly Kurdish state. Voter turnout was high across the region, delaying official results until the final result was announced on Tuesday.
This decision was followed by massive rallies in Erbil and throughout Kurdistan in support of independence from Iraq. These rallies encouraged the regional government to move forward despite angry criticism from Iraq’s neighbors and cautious responses from the international community.
Masoud Barzani, President of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq, refused to back down in the face of regional pressure and held the referendum. While the Iraqi Government and its neighbors have denounced Barzani’s decision, Kurdish military success against ISIS and the current weakness of the Iraqi Government may leave Baghdad incapable of influencing Iraqi Kurdistan.
Reactions Around the World
After gaining international sympathy during their resistance against Saddam and international respect from their victories against the Islamic State, the idea of a Kurdish state has gained a great deal of support. This is not the case for most governments, however, which attempted to discourage the Kurds from voting on independence. Since Turkey, a member of NATO, and Iraq are both fiercely opposed to the creation of Kurdistan, it is difficult for countries involved in the region to support Kurdish independence.
The Iraqi Government has called for the deployment of troops to contested areas, which the Kurds defended from the Islamic State as the Iraqi Government retreated. Governor Najmaldin Karim of Kirkuk, a contested city, has denounced the potential deployment.
While Iran has engaged in military drills near the border and Turkey has made provocative statements, it does not appear that any of Iraq’s neighbors have decided to take immediate military action against Iraqi Kurdistan. Kurds in Turkey, Iran, and Syria, as well as other countries around the world came out to support or celebrate the referendum.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has offered his support for the referendum due to the shared values of Israel and Kurdistan, as well as the shared regional concerns of the two governments.
In the United States, Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), Chairman of the Pro-Life Caucus and the Missile Defense Caucus and a member of the House Armed Service Committee, has proposed legislation to support Kurdish Independence. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affiars, has also offered his support for an independent Kurdistan.
Recent History of Kurdistan
There are currently around thirty-million Kurds in the world, mostly in Iraqi Kurdistan, Turkey, Syria, and Iran. Despite their large numbers, Kurds have largely lived within Arab, Turkish, or Persian-dominated empires since before the time of Saladin, history’s most famous Kurd. Although the victorious allies proposed the establishment of Kurdistan after World War I, the military success of Kamal Ataturk ultimately prevented Turkish Kurds from gaining independence.
Since that time, Kurds have faced persecution in Turkey, while Iraqi Kurds were gassed by Saddam Hussein until local militias and American no-fly zones prevented the dictator from returning to the region. President George H.W. Bush enforced a no-fly zone that would last from the First Gulf War to the fall of Saddam Hussein. Since then, Iraqi Kurdistan has enjoyed some regional autonomy.
After Islamic State forces defeated the Iraqi Army and forced it to retreat to Baghdad, capturing large amounts of American-made military equipment abandoned by Iraqi soldiers, Iraqi Kurdistan was forced to defend itself. The Kurds held the line against the Islamic State before reclaiming much of Northern Iraq from ISIS with American assistance.
While the American government supported delaying the independence vote to a less volatile time, cooperation continues between America and Iraqi Kurdistan against the Islamic State.
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