A year after its bid for independence, the future for Iraqi Kurdistan remains unclear

Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government passed a controversial independence referendum in September of last year. Internationally supported only by Israel, it was met with a blockade from all neighbouring countries and sparked a military invasion from Baghdad.  Due to these events, the dominant Kurdish parties are now turning against each other.

Monday, September 25th. The day had been made a national holiday, so instead of going to work I went out to have breakfast at a cafe. It struck me how calm Sulaymaniyah was – this day the city’s residents had the opportunity to decide on their independent future, but apart from some street vendors nobody seemed to be out. On the way back I took a detour to check out a polling station, and it was the same scene: barely a queue to get in. Why didn’t the locals want to vote?


To understand this we need to go back to June 2014. The so-called Islamic State (IS) had appeared seemingly out of nowhere, captured Iraq’s second largest city Mosul, and was now marching onto Erbil and Baghdad. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) realized the gravity of the situation and called for mass-mobilization into the Peshmerga, the region’s military forces. Many veterans from the Gulf war, Iraqi civil war of the 90’s and the 2003 invasion re-entered service.

This led western powers to prefer Peshmerga over Iraqi Security Forces in their fight against IS. While the latter’s 60,000 men strong bastion had abandoned Mosul to a mere thousand attackers, the Peshmerga consisted of battle-proven soldiers whose families had IS on their doorstep. Small arms, anti-tank missiles, combat gear and armored cars poured into the KRG, and with IS just kilometers away from the outskirts of regional capital Erbil, the Kurds managed to launch a counterattack.

Erbil city centre.

Now fast-forward to April 2017.  After serious reorganization and additional funding Iraqi Security Forces had all but completely retaken Mosul. But the federal government of Haider Abadi could not call the liberation campaign successful – the Peshmerga refused to give back any of the territory captured from IS, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. This was a huge hindrance to Abadi’s political legitimacy. When Erbil started selling that oil independently, Baghdad completely cut the KRG’s allocated budget share.

Masoud Barzani, then president of Iraqi Kurdistan, responded by announcing an independence election date: September 25th. It was not, however, without controversy. Barzani had been overstaying his political mandate since August 2015, on the grounds of the instability caused by the war against IS. The KRG parliament had previously decided for presidential elections to be held in November 2017. For many Kurds, the timing was suspicious – more than a dozen times people told me that Barzani’s real motives were to make himself a national hero shortly before his bid for re-election. They did not think that he had a diplomatic strategy for independence.

Masoud Barzani, the second from the right, depicted on a mural in Erbil.

The referendum

Later in the afternoon a colleague and I followed the developments on TV. Erbil is a city that is a three hour drive away from Sulaymaniyah, but judging by the scenes in the capital they could not be further apart. All public areas were filled with celebrations, the polling lines were seemingly endless, and politicians held rallies one after the other. 

As expected, the ‘yes’ side for independence won by an overwhelming 93%. A more interesting number is that the voter turnout was at a low of 72%. This in an election that could give the world’s largest stateless ethnic group a country, a longtime dream for many Kurds. And even still voices were raised on social media insinuating that this number had been manipulated, as specific details were not released.

There was just one part of Sulaymaniyah that saw celebrations that night, and that was outside the KDP’s head office in the city. At most they numbered about a thousand, a small amount considering the city population of a million people. Many people we spoke to had a connection to Erbil.

“It’s a great day for us Kurds. For the first time in my life I believe independence is within reach” Muhammad Omar, then a 19 year old IT-student, said to me outside the KDP building.

Muhammad Omar, 19. His inked finger indicates that he voted.

Political aftermath

In a referendum strongly opposed by all its neighbors, things could only go so well. Turkey, Iran, and federal Iraq reacted with a show of force by moving troops to the KRG’s border, and then threatening intervention. Four days after the vote Baghdad restricted the international airports of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah to domestic use.

The following weeks were marked with confusion as Abadi kept reiterating his claim to Kirkuk. When the demands were not met, the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF, a government sanctioned militia) were deployed to the outskirts of the city. As this was occuring Peshmerga reinforced their positions. On October 15, another lengthy battle for the city was expected. Instead all Kurdish forces withdrew after a minor skirmish. The city that the Kurds had fought hard to capture from IS was lost to Iraq in a only a matter of hours.

The PUK, responsible for the defence of Kirkuk, insisted it was a tactical retreat in the face of superior firepower,  a battle they just could not win. Barzani had other arguments: he suggested that the PUK had sold off Kirkuk to Iraq, to then blame the KDP for a failed referendum. Later it was revealed that Qasem Soleimani, renowned Iranian Major General responsible for Iran’s foreign operations, had visited Sulaymaniyah the same morning. This caused the allegations to resurface in social media, and many claimed that a clandestine deal had been made between Iran and PUK.

KRG also lost strategic positions such as the Mosul Dam, Khanaqin, and large parts of both the Syrian and Iranian border. All in all the boundaries to Iraq had been reverted to almost as it was before IS’s emergence. All KRG leaders sought a scapegoat for these losses, and again turned on each other. Protests were seen in all Kurdish cities, political offices were destroyed, and civil war between the Kurdish parties again seemed imminent.

“After these events I have completely lost trust in politics here. We deserve our independency but no politicians care for the people of Kurdistan. They just want to fill their pockets with money in any way they can”, Muhammad Aziz, a 23 year old sales representative from Erbil, told me.

The civil war never came. Instead, Masoud Barzani announced his unconditional resignation on October 31. The autonomous region again postponed their presidential elections, however Barzani’s nephew Nechirvan continued to serve as Prime Minister. With no federal payments from Baghdad nor oil money from Kirkuk, the economy soon crumbled. State employees stopped being paid, and for some time riots appeared almost daily in the major cities.

By early 2018 the situation had become so dire that Peshmerga were the only civil servants still receiving full salaries. The KRG had to act, and the beginning of a reconcilement with Baghdad was made. After initial deliberations a $210 million sum was paid to the region’s health and education ministries.

Soon enough Erbil had to make more concessions. They came in the form of handing over the airports to federal authority in exchange for the resumption of international flights. Continued monthly payments were also promised, but they came with a twist. Instead of the previous amount of 17 % of the national budget, it was slashed to 12.5 %. Nechirvan Barzani called it a violation of the Iraqi constitution, but Abadi stood firm.

Incursions into Kurdistan

Turkey, however, refused to resume its flights destined for Sulaymaniyah. They accused the PUK of supporting PKK, a Kurdish separatist group which Ankara has engaged in a bloody conflict with for the past four decades. The PKK is based in the Qandil mountains: a highland in northern Iraq by the Iranian border, and under formal PUK authority.

Turkish rhetorics against the Kurdish guerilla had become tougher in recent years, and president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had promised to expel their presence from all of its borders. This included Syria, as a vast amount of the country had been captured by Kurdish militia YPG in the wake of the civil war. Ankara considers YPG to be the Syrian wing of PKK.

The Turkish Army launched an attack into the Syrian-Kurdish enclave of Afrin in late January, and claimed victory two months later. Emboldened by the success, Erdoğan promised further interventions into the rest of Syria, as well as Qandil. Frequent bombing raids were conducted and commandos were sent in during March, and regular troops entered the mountains in June this year. There are now 16 Turkish bases in the KRG. Nechirvan Barzani has welcomed the development, calling on PKK to lay down its arms. PUK has not been critical to the operation, and only requests Turkey to reconsider the alleged ties to PKK.

Also KRG’s eastern neighbor acted in face of Kurdish instability. There were serious talks between Iran and Turkey to banish PKK from Qandil in a joint operation. That cooperation never materialized, but the Islamic Republic stepped up its cross-border attacks against KDPI, Kurdish rebels operating in Iran but based in Iraqi Kurdistan. The escalation culminated early September with a missile strike on the KDPI headquarter in Koya, wiping out many senior figures. KDP blamed PUK for collaborating with Tehran on the strike.

What does the future hold for the Kurds?

On October 2, PUK made important progress in Baghdad – Barham Salih, party veteran, won the parliamentary vote for presidency with an overwhelming majority of 219. His opponent, Fuad Hussein of PDK, received a mere 22. For a weakened Kurdistan, good relations with Baghdad will be essential in the near future. Salih can provide that connection to the region, and for Sulaymaniyah in particular.

KRG held their own parliamentary elections on September 30. Participation was an all-time low at 57 %. No faction reached a majority, but PDK increased from 38 to 45 seats, representing 44 % of the votes. The spokesperson for PUK initially called for a rejection of the results, but party leader Qudad Talabani later pleaded for calm and cross-party cooperation. There were also claims from Erbil that massive voter-fraud had occured in the Sulaymaniyah province. A government has yet to be formed, as well as a parliamentary pick for Prime Minister and a popular election for the president.

Baghdad is also lacking a government. After an election last May, no less than nine party coalitions were voted into parliament. So far they have failed electing a speaker or form an alliance reaching electoral majority. Some of the parties are considered close to either the US, Saudi Arabia or Iran, all seeking influence in the country. Whichever constellation wins will inadvertently also affect Kurdistan.

I again contacted Muhammad Omar, the man I had met during the election celebrations. The words of hope I had heard during that September night last year were gone, and had been replaced with anger and uncertainty.

“The referendum was terrible for us Kurds. For hundreds of years we have been fighting for Kirkuk and it was lost in a single day. It feels like we will always be divided, and I’m not sure if independence will ever come”.

Fredrik Fahlman 


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