Referendum for Iraqi Kurdistan (2017)

An independence referendum for Iraqi Kurdistan was held on 25 September 2017, with preliminary results showing approximately 93.25 percent of votes cast in favour of independence. Despite reporting that the independence referendum would be non-binding, the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) characterised it as binding, although they claimed that an affirmative result would trigger the start of state building and negotiations with Iraq rather than an immediate declaration of independence of Kurdistan. The referendum’s legality was rejected by the federal government of Iraq.

It was originally planned to be held in 2014 amidst controversy and dispute between the regional and federal governments. Calls for Kurdish independence had been going on for years, with an unofficial 2005 referendum resulting in 98% voting in favor of independence. These longstanding calls gained impetus following the Northern Iraq offensive by Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant during the Iraqi Civil War in which Baghdad-controlled forces abandoned some areas, which were then taken by the Peshmerga and controlled de facto by the Kurds.

The referendum was announced and delayed on several occasions as Kurdish forces co-operated with the Iraqi central government for the liberation of Mosul, but by April 2017, it was being seen as happening some time in 2017. On 7 June 2017, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani held a meeting with the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and other ruling parties, where the independence referendum was confirmed to be held on 25 September 2017.

The Kurdistan Regional Government had criticised Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, claiming that his rule was divisive. After the central government began withholding funding to the Kurdistan Regional Government in January 2014, the KRG attempted to export oil via the northern pipeline into Turkey in May, but the Iraqi government lobbied international governments to block the export and sale of this oil.

The flag of Kurdistan flies over the disputed city of Kirkuk after it was abandoned by Iraqi forces in June 2014 as the ISIL militant group approached.

As jihadis affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took control of much of western and northern Iraq in June 2014, the Iraqi military in those areas largely disintegrated and abandoned their positions. The Peshmerga stepped into this vacuum, taking control of the city of Kirkuk and other northern areas long claimed by the Kurdistan Regional Government but until then outside its formal control. In these disputed areas, Kurdish forces under the regional government spearheaded a “concerted campaign” to displace Arab communities in northern Iraq, actions that could amount to war crimes, according to a report by Amnesty International.

Al-Maliki’s government was widely blamed for the failure of the security forces and for Sunni Arab dissatisfaction with the central government, and international and domestic calls for a new prime minister became widespread. On 1 July, Kurdish president Masoud Barzani announced his intention to call a referendum on independence sometime in 2014 on the grounds that the country had been “effectively partitioned” already.

In September 2014, after Maliki was replaced as prime minister by Haider al-Abadi, Kurdish leaders agreed to postpone the referendum while they focused on the fight against ISIL.

On 3 February 2016, Rudaw.net reported that Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani told KRG legislators that the referendum would be held sometime before the 2016 American presidential election in early November. On 23 March, Barzani said, in an interview with Al-Monitor media website, that the referendum would take place before October 2016. However, in late October, Iraqi Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani confirmed that the referendum would not be held until after Mosul had been liberated.

In August 2016, Haider Al-Abadi said that he saw self-determination as an “undisputed right”.

News reports from December 2016 said Iraqi Kurdistan’s Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani had suggested the region could push for independence from Baghdad once the ongoing battle to liberate Mosul from ISIL was complete.

In early April 2017, as the liberation of Mosul was progressing, the ruling political parties of Iraqi Kurdistan, the KDP and PUK, announced their goal of holding an independence referendum in 2017.

On 7 June 2017, Kurdish President Masoud Barzani announced that the referendum would take place on 25 September 2017. Barzani’s assistant Hemin Hawrami said the referendum will also take place in Kirkuk, Makhmour, Sinjar and Khanaqin regions. All of these areas are disputed and are claimed by the central government. Senior Kurdish official Hoshyar Zebari said a “Yes” vote in the referendum wouldn’t mean an automatic declaration of independence of Kurdistan, but will “strengthen the Kurds’ hand” in talks on self-determination with the central government.

On three separate occasions, Assyrians from Alqosh protested against the removal of their mayor by the KDP-dominated Nineveh Provincial Council. The residents of Alqosh rejected the idea of their town being a “disputed area” and demanded the immediate reinstatement of their former mayor. The removal, which occurred two months before the referendum, caused protests because the mayor was replaced by a KDP member from Alqosh.

On 14 August, a delegation from the KRG met with Prime Minister Abadi and Vice-President Maliki in Baghdad to discuss the upcoming referendum and affairs between the KRG and Iraq. Romeo Hakkari, the Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac representative of the delegation and head of the Bet-Nahrain Democratic Party said that in addition to the meeting with Iraqi officials, they would meet with foreign missions in Baghdad.

The KRG said referendum planning and implementation of the vote was up to the local councils of the disputed regions. The Shingal District Council expressed its support on 30 July for the KRG’s efforts to include the Shingal area in the referendum. The Mayoral Council of Khanaqin on 16 August discussed the issue and decided to hold the referendum in their region. The Bashiqa Town Council voted the next day and decided to take part in the referendum.

After a rare high-level meeting between the Iranian military chief of staff Major General Mohammad Bagheri and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara on 16 August, a joint statement “voiced strong opposition” to the referendum.

The local council of Mandali, whose population includes both Arabs and Kurds, had voted in favour of including the town in the referendum on 17 August. Arab residents however protested against the decision on 10 September. A day later, the city council withdrew the decision of participation in the referendum while Mandali’s mayor, Hoshiya Ismail, was dismissed from his position.

On 29 August, the Kirkuk Provincial Council voted on the issue of holding the referendum in Kirkuk. Of the 41 council members, 24 attended with 23 voting in favor of holding the referendum while one abstained. The remaining 17 members, all of whom were Turkmen and Arabs, boycotted the vote. On 14 September, the Iraqi parliament voted to dismiss Najmiddin Karim as the Governor of Kirkuk, a decision requested by al-Abadi after Kirkuk’s provincial assembly voted to take part in the referendum. Karim said he will not follow the dismissal order and will stay in office. The provincial council meanwhile condemned the decision of the parliament with council head Ribwar al-Talabani claiming only the council had the power to remove him.

Campaigning for the referendum officially began on 5 September. The region’s electoral commission said campaigning would last for 18 days with the Iraqi Kurdish diaspora being able to vote on 23 September, two days ahead of the main poll.

The Iraqi parliament rejected the referendum on 12 September. The Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament approved a plan to hold the referendum on 15 September. 68 out of 111 lawmakers attended the session with Gorran boycotting it. Iraq’s Supreme Court on 18 September ordered the suspension of the referendum to examine its constitutionality. Barzani however vowed to go ahead with the referendum.

It has been reported that pro-AKP news outlets in Turkey including Yeni AkitAkşam, Internet Haber and Yeni Safak have been circulating a fake news story about “Zionist support” for an “insidious Kurdish plan” by Barzani and Kurdish Jews to settle 200,000 Jews in the region should Kurdistan become independent. The report has been disputed, including by Kurdish analysts, as baseless and fake news, and has been described as part of a media offensive by Turkey against Israel, while Kurdish analyst Diliman Abdulkader considers the reports an attempt to “destroy Kurdish credibility in the region by associating them with Israel and playing on local prejudices against people of Jewish faith”.

Turkey decided to remove broadcaster Rudaw Media Network (Rudaw), which is affiliated to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, from its satellite broadcasting on the same day voting took place on the independence referendum in the KRG.

One poll, held between 25 and 27 August, which covered the provinces of Arbil, Sulaymaniyah, Duhok, Halabja and Kirkuk, as well as the cities of Khanagin, Jalawla and Mandali within Diyala, showed intention to vote yes at 52.9%, intention to vote no at 25.6%, 3.6% not voting and the remainder of 17.9% being undecided with most of these indicating that they intended to vote yes but were also carefully watching the situation in case it deteriorated.

UN member states

Iraq and regional countries

  • Iraq: Saad al-Hadithi, a spokesman for the Iraqi Prime Minister, said, “Any decision concerning the future of Iraq must take into account the constitutional provisions, it is an Iraqi decision and not one party alone. All Iraqis must have a say in defining the future of their homeland. No single party can determine the future of Iraq in isolation from the others.”
  • Iran: In June 2017, the Iranian government said that the unilateral referendum was inconsistent with the Iraqi constitution and that “the Islamic Republic of Iran’s principled and clear stance is supporting Iraq’s territorial integrity and coherence”. The Supreme Leader of Iran Ali Khamenei then said, “Iran opposes holding talks of a referendum to partition Iraq and considers those who fuel the idea as opponents of Iraq’s independence.” Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to Ali Khamenei on international affairs, said “President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region Massoud Barzani is a middleman for Zionists, who seeks to implement their plans for the division of Muslim states.” In early October 2017, during Turkey’s president visit to Tehran, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called Iraqi Kurds’ “secession vote an act of betrayal toward the entire region and a threat to its future” and urged Iran, Turkey, and Iraq to act decisively to prevent Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence. Khamenei also accused the United States of “seeking to create a new Israel in the region” by supporting the independence vote in Iraq.
  • Israel: Prior to the referendum, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel “supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state”. Israel became the first state to endorse an independent Kurdistan.
  • Jordan: Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said the referendum was an internal Iraqi affair.
  • Saudi Arabia: The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said through the Saudi Press Agency, “[Saudi Arabia] looks to the wisdom of President Barzani in not holding the referendum.”
  • Syria: Adviser to the Council of Ministers Said Azzouz said any unilateral action is rejected and that Syria cannot accept the division of Iraq, and that independence needed legal provisions from the Iraqi constitution.
  • Turkey: In June 2017, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey said that the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government’s decision to hold an independence referendum was a “grave mistake”. Also in June, president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said the referendum would not serve anyone’s interests, calling it a threat to the territorial integrity of Iraq, and expressed regret over it. On 14 September, the Foreign Ministry of Turkey warned Iraqi Kurdistan that it would “pay dearly” if the referendum was not abandoned. On 26 September, Erdoğan called the referendum decision “treachery” and said economic and military measures could be used against the Iraqi Kurds. Turkey halted the flights of the Turkish airline companies to northern Iraq from the evening of 29 September 2017, until further notice at the request of Baghdad, following the referendum.

Other states

  • Armenia: Armenian Foreign Affairs Ministry Eduard Nalbandyan said it hopes for a peaceful settlement of the situation in connection with the Iraqi Kurdistan referendum on independence. He also states that Armenia expects the Iraqi authorities and the regional authorities of Iraqi Kurdistan to be able to avoid tension, and find avenues for resolving the matters.
  • Australia: A spokeswoman for the foreign affairs department said in a statement, “Holding a referendum at this time risks causing further instability in Iraq that would weaken both the Iraqi government and the Kurdistan regional government.”
  • Belgium: In an interview with NRT News after meeting Deputy Prime Minister of KRG Qubad Talabani, Deputy Prime Minister of Belgium Jan Jambon said all nations have the right to self-determination. Belgian ambassador to Iraq Hendrik Van de Velde said Belgium did not have an official stance on this issue.
  • Bulgaria: Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov said Bulgaria had listened to President Barzani when he visited the country in May 2017, but had no official stance on this issue.
  • Canada: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau remained neutral about the referendum process and did not get involved, citing the Quebec sovereignty issue. Trudeau said he is sensitive to other countries getting involved in another country’s internal decisions and that he will respect the process established by the Kurds.
  • China: Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang expressed support of Iraq’s territorial integrity but asked for an open dialogue in a daily news briefing.
  • France: President Emmanuel Macron said, “If this referendum is held, I hope it leads to the proper representation of Kurds in government and within the framework of the [Iraqi] Constitution.” After the referendum, Macron offered to help ease tensions between the Iraqi and Kurdistani governments, stating that “[Iraq]’s territorial integrity is essential”.
  • Germany: Germany warned against Kurdistan making a unilateral decision in a “one-sided” referendum.
  • Greece: Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias said Iraq’s unity should be desired by the people themselves and that the Kurdish referendum is a right under the Iraqi constitution. During a meeting discussing the upcoming referendum, Greek Ambassador to Iraq Dionyssios Kyvetos announced that Greece was upgrading its diplomatic representation in Erbil to a consulate.
  • Ireland: Dublin South-West Teachta Dála and Sinn Féin Foreign Affairs spokesman Seán Crowe issued a statement saying “The people of Iraqi Kurdistan have the right to self-determination and the right to democratically decide their own future.” He said the referendum “should lead to future discussions with Baghdad”. Crowe criticized Iraq for suspending flights to and from Erbil and also criticized Iraq and its neighbors for threatening blockades against Kurdistan.
  • Italy: Rezan Qader, the Kurdistan Region’s representative to Italy, said some Italian officials expressed their support for the Kurdish referendum in a meeting.
  • Netherlands: Dutch Consul General to Kurdistan Region Janet Alberda said the referendum would be more accepted, if it was coordinated with Baghdad.
  • Poland: Deputy Marshal of the Sejm Stanisław Tyszka said Poland would approve the referendum. Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski said he “perfectly understand the ambitions of Kurds”, but urged Kurdish officials to cooperate with others.
  • Russia: Russian President Vladimir Putin commented on the issue by stating that Russia understands the sensitivity around the Kurdish cause and that their position is that the referendum should be within international law.
  • Spain: The Spanish Foreign Ministry released a statement saying “This referendum is illegal in accordance with the Iraqi constitution of 2005, which received broad support from the population. Now all the people of Iraq must join forces to defeat ISIL once and for all, to build the country for the benefit of the entire population.”
  • Sweden: Both governmental parties, the Social Democratic Party and the Green Party, have expressed their support for the referendum. Opposition parties Sweden Democrats and the Left Party have also expressed their support.
  • United Kingdom: On behalf of the British government, British consul to Kurdistan Region Frank Baker said the United Kingdom recognises “the inalienable right of everybody around the world to be free and to decide on their own governments”, but that it is not the right time for this. He said a referendum should be held with Iraqi consent. Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs Boris Johnson echoed the position, stating that “a referendum at this time will distract from the more urgent priorities of defeating Daesh, stabilising liberated areas and addressing the long-term political issues that led to Daesh’s rise”.
  • United States: US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said: “We support a unified, stable and a federal Iraq. We appreciate and understand the legitimate aspirations of the people of the Iraqi Kurdistan.” Nauert warned that the referendum could distract from the final defeat of ISIL. She said: “We have expressed our concerns to the authorities in the Kurdistan Region, but holding a referendum or even a non-binding resolution at this time would distract from urgent priorities and that be the defeat of ISIS, the stabilization, the return of displaced people, managing of the region’s economic crisis, and resolving the region’s internal political disputes.” Negative reaction from the U.S. State Department is likely due to the United States’ military alliance with Turkey. On September 27, Democratic United States Senator for New York and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer became the first senator to call for US support for Kurdish independence following the results of the referendum, releasing a resolution calling for the US government to change its policy to “support a political process that addresses the aspirations of the Kurds for an independent state”, reasoning that the KRG had been “our most supportive partners on the ground in the fight against terrorism”, and said that “neighboring countries … led by despots, who oppose a Kurdish state because it threaten’s their self-interests, need to respect the need for the Kurds – and the Iraqis – to determine their own future”. He called upon Iraq to “engage in a dialogue and peacefully determine the best way to accommodate the well-deserved and legitimate aspirations of the Iraqi Kurds”. On September 30, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated, “The United States does not recognize the … unilateral referendum. … The vote and the results lack legitimacy, and we continue to support a united, federal, democratic and prosperous Iraq.”

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