Some three million eligible Kurdish voters, plus others in disputed territories and the oil-rich city of Kirkuk headed to the polls on Monday – some as early as late Sunday night, in fact – to decide in a referendum vote whether they want to become an independent nation-state.
Three northern Iraqi provinces — Erbil, Duhok and Sulaymaniyah – comprise the parliamentary democracy governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq. But the Kurds have also included in their referendum the populations in Iraqi territories they alone fought for and wrested from the murderous control of the Islamic State terrorist organization, including Kirkuk.
It’s an historic moment the Baghdad government fears and opposes, believing it will destroy co-existence in the country. Most of the world has also worked hard to prevent this event – some fearing renewed instability in the region and others simply wishing to retain control over a people who say their independence as a nation-state is long past due.
The Kurds – whose total population numbers approximately 30 million — are based in separate regions not only in Iraq, but also in Iran, Syria and in southeastern Turkey, a country whose government has already deployed its troops on the border with Iraqi Kurdistan, vowing readiness to “take necessary steps.”
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Monday formally denounced the referendum, and threatened to halt oil exports from Iraqi Kurdistan, via Turkey.
But it is only in Iraq where the Kurds were fortunate enough to have their autonomy inscribed into the country’s constitution, primarily due to the intervention of Western nations following the 1991 U.S. war with Iraq that followed the invasion of Kuwait by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. In Iraq, Kurds control their land borders with neighboring countries. They maintain their own security force (the Peshmerga, who successfully helped battle the Islamic State terrorist group), they draft their own laws and elect their own parliament. In effect, the Kurds already maintain nearly everything necessary for an independent state.
Israel has long-standing ties with Iraqi Kurdistan in the areas of security, energy and business. Moreover, it would be a boon to the Jewish State to bring a new non-Arab ally into the Middle Eastern circle of friends.
Regional President Massoud Barzani, 71, is head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party that currently controls the Kurdish regional government, but like Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, he has overstayed his elected term, albeit by two years, as opposed to Abbas, who has outstayed his term by nearly a decade.
Barzani has seen much in his lifetime, and this week drew the red line for Baghdad, saying at a news conference that while the referendum was only a first step in a long process of negotiation for independence, the Kurds’ “partnership” with Iraq’s central government is over. Reviewing the long, bloody history of abuse inflicted on his people by government forces, Barzani calculated that at least 50,000 Kurds or more had died at the hands of Saddam Hussein’s military forces alone.
The hunger for a state of their own dates as far back as the time when the Ottoman Empire was broken up after World War I and European nations divided the territory. At that time, the Kurds demanded their own state – but instead they were driven from their traditional lands and dispersed to other areas in Turkey and elsewhere.
A U.S. coalition was formed to expel the Iraqi leader from Kuwait, and the Kurds rose up against him from the north. Iraqi government troops punished them for their rebellion, attacking the north during the harsh winter months. More than one million Kurds fled to the mountains; thousands died of exposure, and in battle.
But that same year, the UN Security Council passed a resolution approving a no-fly zone that blocked Iraqi air traffic over the country. By 1992, Iraqi Kurds had formed their own regional government.
From 1986 to 1988, the region was targeted by the Baath party of Saddam Hussein, with government forces destroying thousands of Kurdish villages. In one village alone – the town of Halabja – in 1988, thousands of women and children were slaughtered, using deadly chemical gas.
Disputes with the Iraqi government over oil revenues from the Kurdish autonomous region, and the fate of disputed territories such as Kirkuk after Kurdish blood was spilled to win it back from Islamic State terrorists have further fueled the century-long Kurdish ache for a state of their own.
The Peshmerga forces were fierce allies of the United States in fighting against the Islamic State when needed. But the Kurds are completely unwilling to be held back by America’s opposition to Monday’s referendum and its concern over what role it might play in “destabilizing” the region — particularly given the other deadlier forces working so much harder towards that goal.