By Hamzeh Hadad


The Erbil citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage site in downtown Erbil, Kurdistan Region of Iraq
The Erbil citadel, a UNESCO World Heritage site in downtown Erbil, Kurdistan Region of Iraq

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)  held a non-binding referendum in northern Iraq on September 25, 2017 asking citizens whether they wanted to secede from Iraq. There was a push from the Iraqi federal government and the international community to not hold the referendum. However, the KRG went through with the vote, despite its lack of legality and historical claim to the land in question. There is now growing tension between multiple factions in Iraq, raising fears of violent escalation.

The Kurdish referendum is contrary to the first article of the Iraqi constitution that states, “the Republic of Iraq is a single federal, independent and fully sovereign state in which the system of government is republican, representative, parliamentary, and democratic, and this Constitution is a guarantor of the unity of Iraq”.

The constitution was adopted by the majority of Iraqis in a national referendum held in 2005. Also, the largest percentage of approval to adopt the constitution came from the three Kurdish provinces under the KRG’s administration. The Iraqi Supreme Court ruled it would be illegal for the KRG to hold a referendum on secession based on the constitution.

The Iraqi Supreme Court’s ruling did not stop the KRG from holding the referendum and neither did pressure by the United States and United Nations. The federal government of Iraq and members of the coalition against Daesh (which is the Arabic acronym for the so-called ‘Islamic State’)  feared the referendum would destabilize the war effort.

The referendum was not only held in the Kurdistan region of Iraq but also in contested areas that are outside the region’s historic borders — that are also claimed by the federal government. The disputed areas are where many of Iraq’s minorities are located. Many of those minorities are Turkmen, Assyrians and Yezidis who are neither Kurdish nor Arab and are indigenous to these lands. Many could not vote because they have been displaced due to the war against Daesh and the ones that did were forced to vote yes in fear of facing consequences by KRG authority.

Even inside the areas where the KRG’s authority is recognized, Indigenous Assyrians have contested the legitimacy of the KRG since its inception. Creating a Kurdish state without consulting the territory’s Indigenous populations is as problematic in Iraq as it is here in Canada, in the case of Québec sovereignty.

The referendum was held while the war against Daesh is ongoing, with no international monitors to give it legitimacy. Therefore, the results of the referendum are questionable. The turnout was supposedly 73% with nearly 93% voting in favour of independence. However, specifics of how each city voted was not released. While it is no secret many Kurds aspire for statehood, many who did not chose to abstain from voting rather than voting no as their form of disapproval.

The lack of specifics to the vote is problematic. It does not provide insight on which areas prefer to secede and it does not differentiate between the Kurdistan region and the disputed territories, or in Assyrian towns like Alqosh, which has little to no Kurds that live there, yet is still claimed by the KRG as Kurdish.

For many minorities like Assyrians who are natives to the land, dividing Iraq is not a desirable option. Natives of Iraq do not want to see their ancestral homeland  land  split along ethnic lines they cannot identify with or recognize. As Iraqi citizens, Assyrians have the ability to preserve their ethnic identities, especially if Article 125 for self-administration is finally implemented. In contrast,  their ethnic identity is currently suppressed under an ethnic state like Kurdistan.

Kurdish desires for independence from what they see as an oppressive Arab state is not wrong. However, making unilateral decisions, imposing their will on others and secession on contested land without legitimate input from Indigenous minorities is wrong. Iraq has seen enough violence in the past four decades, it does not need to experience anymore. Instead, there should be multilateral dialogue between the federal government of Iraq, the KRG and minorities to determine their future.

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 2 (Oct/Nov 2017).