A Kurdish bid for independence will never be convenient for Iraq, so it must happen now

If we wait for the international community to give its blessing, we'll be waiting till the end of time

An Iraqi Kurd holds a Kurdish flag during an event to urge people to vote in the upcoming independence referendum in Arbil, the capital of the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, on September 15, 2017.
Iraqi Kurdish lawmakers voted to hold an independence referendum set in motion by regional president Massud Barzani, who has kept open the option of postponing it under American pressure. / AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED
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Biza Barzo is a political analyst living in Erbil

The larger portion of the Kurdish people is expected to vote for independence from Iraq. The strong will of the people of Kurdistan coupled with accumulated grievances throughout history make a powerful moral case for Kurdish self-rule.

The vast majority of Kurds do not feel attached to Iraq nor do they identify themselves as Iraqis.  The smaller proportion of Kurds who do feel empathy towards Iraq are those who have benefited significantly from the Iraqi government, who have lived in Baghdad or other non-Kurdish parts of the country, or have mixed Iraqi and Kurdish family backgrounds.

My family faced much hardship under the former dictator Saddam Hussein. My grandfather, who was a prominent Kurdish lawyer and freedom fighter of his time was executed by the Baath regime. He was taken away from the court of the Kurdish capital of Erbil by Iraqi forces on April 9, 1979. We waited for many years for him to return from captivity. Following the 1991 Kurdish uprising against the former regime, my family found documented evidence that he had been executed in 1982 in Kirkuk Khasa Prison.

He died fighting for a free Kurdistan, and although today’s status quo differs greatly from my grandfather's time, the people are still deprived of their entitlements, Kurds are still not "equals" with Iraqis. True, nationalism is a concept that is fading away to some extent and matters less to me, having grown up in the west. Nonetheless, I strive to follow in my grandfather's footsteps and live to see an independent Kurdistan so that I can witness my people obtaining their most basic rights.

On the local level, there is undeniable anger towards the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government for initiating this quest.

However, most people agree that we should look beyond partisan grudges and see this as a unifying national event, regardless of who started the process. It is wrong to oppose the legitimate rights of the people solely because of hostility towards the leading political party.

The 'No' campaign, which is diminishing, would make more sense if it were motivated by some form of Iraqi-Kurdish unity, but there is no sign of that.

As regards timing, given the hostility that surrounds Kurdistan and the negative influence that neighbouring countries bring to bear on Iraq, there is no ideal time. The Kurdish quest for independence cannot be compared to Brexit or the Scottish independence movement. Few of the war-torn states in the Middle East are as politically developed as advanced western countries. If we concede to Baghdad and the international community now and wait for a bilateral agreement with the central Iraqi government (which has the backing of the superpowers), we'll be waiting till the end of time.

Past experience shows it is highly doubtful that any deal with Baghdad will ever last more than a few months, at best, before a new issue comes up. It is equally doubtful that the international community will go against tradition and support Kurdish aspirations over the those of the disastrous sovereign states in the region.

If there is to be any progress, Iraq needs to radically reform its political system and completely abandon the inherited corrupt system left over by the former regime, which was designed to serve Sunni domination of power and today does the same for the Shias, at the expense of all other communities in Iraq, including the Kurds.

International law and a history of bloodshed are on the side of Kurdish independence. There are risks involved, of course, and Kurdistan is likely to face many critical challenges the day after the referendum. What is certain is that the Erbil-Baghdad relationship needs to be redefined for any constructive dialogue to take place.

A safe option for the transition might be a loose confederation of two separate and equal powers under the umbrella of one joint international entity. Independence takes more than a day or two so there needs to be an adequate system of governance, but it must be different from the current one. With a confederate system, you can create a common market of goods, services and capital, giving the federal government only a limited coordinating and harmonizing role and leaving most economic and monetary powers with the two separate republics. Kurdistan and Iraq will have separate currencies, central banks, and fiscal policies. Most importantly, the confederation agreement must allow either state or both to withdraw from the union after a fixed period and following a referendum, if there was no referendum before the agreement was made.

Such an agreement will help both sides come to terms with what is a dramatic change and help them deal with it in a more planned and practical manner.