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The Controversy Over A Kurdistan Referendum

Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in traditional uniforms take part in a march to support an independence referendum in Irbil on September 13.
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters in traditional uniforms take part in a march to support an independence referendum in Irbil on September 13.

IRBIL, IRAQ — In the capital of Iraq's Kurdistan region, traffic cameras nail speeders, and trash thrown on the street is whisked away by morning. High-level officials from all over the country dine at five-star hotels, and parks, malls, and cafes are packed on nights and weekends.

People speak Kurdish, listen to Kurdish music, marry Kurdish spouses, and eat Kurdish food. There are plenty of Arab residents and visitors, but they come with permission from Kurdish authorities after passing through Kurdish military checkpoints.

For many people here, the upcoming referendum on Kurdish independence from Iraq is obvious.

"Any region that has its own culture and language has the right to be independent," says Saman Sadq, the owner of a nuts and sweets shop. "Forget politics. We need to think of our future as Kurdish people."

Opponents of the referendum are many and varied. The Iraqi Parliament, opposition parties within the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region, Western leaders, and Iraq's neighboring countries have come out against the vote. Some want the referendum canceled; others want it postponed.

Karzan Gardi, who heads the Irbil election office for Gorran, one of Kurdistan's main opposition parties, says, "There are many signs there will be a backlash."

To Vote or Not to Vote?

The Gorran party wants to postpone the ballot. The Kurdish opposition sees the referendum as ill-timed and potentially a catalyst for conflict.

Many Western countries are also lobbying for postponement. They see the referendum as potentially damaging to the fight with the Islamic State (IS) militants, who still hold portions of Iraq.

Kurdish and Iraqi forces have been allies against IS, but a vote for independence would skyrocket tensions and possibly incite violence within Iraq. Both the Kurdish government and Baghdad claim parts of Iraq, including Kirkuk, one of the country's biggest oil cities. Additionally, the vote would certainly anger Iraq's neighbors, also allied against IS.

The Iraqi Parliament in Baghdad voted this week to reject the vote, promising to use "any means necessary" to prevent the referendum.

On September 14, representatives from the United Nations, the United States, and the United Kingdom met with Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, asking him to postpone the referendum. In the past, Barzani has been defiant against calls for postponement.

Barzani, however, has also noted that the international community may be able to persuade his government to postpone the ballot if it offered an alternate plan and some kind of guarantee to help Kurdistan transition into independence safely.

After the meeting, a statement from the Kurdistan president's office said the international delegation had proposed an alternative to a September 25 vote that Kurdish leaders will discuss and will announce a "stance in the near future."

The Staunchest Opponents

Western officials fear the referendum will destabilize the region as Iraq's neighbors Turkey, Iran, and Syria oppose the ballot, apparently worried a "yes" vote will fuel established Kurdish independence movements at home.

Among these movements are militant groups like the PKK, recognized internationally as a terrorist organization and the Turkish government's enemy No. 1. Other Kurdish groups, like the YPG in Syria, are viewed as terrorists by Turkey and are armed and trained against IS by the United States.

Turkey's Foreign Ministry called the referendum a "historic mistake" on September 14, warning that Kurdish Iraq would "pay a price" if it goes through with the vote.

The only country in the region that supports the referendum outright is Israel, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying Israel "supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state." Israel has no official diplomatic ties with Baghdad.

According to Barzani, foreign opposition and threats are not factors in the decision on whether to hold the referendum.

"If someone wants to try to break the will of the people of Kurdistan by force," he said, according to local news, "the field is open for them to come and give it a try."

Independence Dream

Kurdistan is a historical and cultural region overlapping the borders of Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran.

Divided by an early 20th century European deal to divvy up "spheres of influence" in the Middle East, Kurdish people are known for harboring a near-universal dream of an independent state.

"The Kurdish people have suffered so much destruction," explains Ari Nanakali, a senior member of the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party at his office in Irbil. "I expect all Kurdish people here will vote, and 75 percent will vote 'yes.' "

Under President Saddam Hussein in the late 1980s, Kurdish people in Iraq suffered genocide, chemical attacks, mass displacements, and forced disappearances. As many as 182,000 Kurdish people were murdered during the campaign.

Kurdistan in Iraq is one of the most secure places in the region, with an economy that was expanding rapidly until recent years. Kurds believe it can start growing again.

"When we are a country, we will make international trade agreements," Nanakali said. "It will make us stronger."

-- Heather Murdock reported this story for the Voice Of America