Iraqi Kurds Vote To Support Independence.

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Millions of Iraq’s Kurds went to the polls yesterday, voting in a referendum to kick start the region’s bid for nationhood.

The controversial plebiscite was announced by The High Referendum Council 7 June this year. Watching the scramble to delay or cancel the vote in the last week or two, Baghdad, neighbours Iran, Syria and Turkey, and the wider international community could be accused of not having taken Kurdistan’s intentions seriously.

The Iraqi Parliament only addressed the issue less than two weeks before the vote, formally denying the referendum’s legitimacy 12 September. The governments in Ankara, Damascus and Tehran all condemned the referendum, no doubt nervous that it would embolden the demands for greater autonomy and more from restive sections of their significant Kurdish populations. The US, UK and UN didn’t present a proposal to delay until 14 September – by which time many prominent figures from the KDP and PUK had already expressed a deep mistrust of international players that had repeatedly rowed back on previous promises.

In an interview with The Guardian Barzani expressed frustration that the international community held such opposition to the vote.

“In 2015 I told President Obama … that the partnership with Iraq had failed. At the time we agreed to concentrate on the fight against ISIL, so we left it at that.

“Is it a crime to ask our people to express themselves over what they want for the future? It was surprising to see the reaction from the international community. Where is your democracy now? Where are the UN charters? Where is the respect for freedom of expression? After the big sacrifice of the Peshmerga and breaking the myth of ISIL, we thought they would respect this right.”

With threats and offers being made right up to the wire, many Kurds believe outside opposition spurred a stronger ‘Yes’ vote than might otherwise have been expected. Alan Mohtadi, a Kurdish energy consultant based in Stockholm, told Yalla:

“The international community’s reaction isn’t really surprising, I don’t believe Kurds in the KRI expected a great deal of support. But many were genuinely surprised by the fierce opposition, they didn’t expect it. I believed the international community would largely stay neutral. It was that fierce opposition from the international community and regional countries that enabled Barzani to eventually rally such great support for ‘Yes’.”

Shivan Fazil, studying for his masters in Middle East Politics at SOAS in London, echoed Mohtadi’s surprise: “It was quiet bewildering to see the international community ganging up against the dream of one of the largest ethnic groups in the world, which was only recently an ally, fighting on behalf of the world against ISIL. I believe this reaction strengthened people’s resolve, including those who were skeptical and had misgivings about the process and the timing.”

There were misgivings within the KRI, notably from opposition parties Gorran and the Kurdistan Islamic Group, both of whom boycotted the 15 September vote in the recently reconvened Kurdistan Parliament. In the event, just 3 of the 68 MPs in attendance voted against the High Referendum Council’s decision, giving it a clear majority in the 111 seat legislature.

On the eve of the referendum, both parties told members to vote with their conscience, with senior figures eventually ticking the ‘Yes’ box. The ‘No For Now’ campaign, led by Kurdish businessman Shaswar Abdulwahid, never gained traction, even in his hometown of Sulaymaniyah, where many opposition politicians and residents saw the timing of the referendum as a cynical power grab by President Barzani.

But whatever the politics at play, the vast majority of Kurds simply couldn’t pass up the opportunity to press their claim for independence, and over 80% of registered voters participated, dismissing fears of a limited but notable boycott.

Early returns show the ‘Yes’ vote at around 90% – a ‘No’ result is unimaginable, and always was. And whilst it is nonbinding – the world has not woken up with a new country – the overwhelming will of the people will be a strong card for Erbil, if and when secession negotiations with Baghdad begin.

With last minute meetings failing to bring about agreement between the delegations of Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and President Barzani, the parliament in Baghdad is taking a hard line against Erbil. On Monday a motion was presented to send forces to the oil-rich and ethnically diverse Kirkuk province, where the vote was held in areas disputed by both sides. Lawmakers also signalled their intent to remove Fuad Masum from the position of Iraqi President, a largely ceremonial role reserved for Kurds since 2005.

On Tuesday, parliament moved to halt the salaries of federal state employees who took part in the referendum. Measures approved on Monday also called for all Iraq / KRI borders to be closed, with Abadi asking Iran and Turkey to do the same on Sunday. Iran claimed to have done so on Monday morning, although traders in border town Kalar reported business as usual to Yalla on Monday afternoon. At the Habur border with Turkey, traffic was one way into KRI only.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was typically bellicose on Monday, laying out all the options open to his government. The KRI’s only significant source of income is its oil reserves, estimated at some 45bn barrels. 550,000 barrels are exported through a pipeline to Turkey’s Ceyhan port daily.

Refusing to let the word ‘Kurdistan’ cross his lips, Erdoğan warned: “After this, let’s see through which channels the northern Iraqi regional government will send its oil, or where it will sell it. We have the tap. The moment we shut it, then it’s done.”

Economic threats are part of a wider strategy from Ankara, with military exercises having taken place on the border in the last few days. “Our military is not [there] for nothing,” Erdoğan said in Monday’s speech. “We could arrive suddenly one night.”

Just a few months ago Abadi was angrily demanding Turkey respect Iraq’s sovereignty by withdrawing troops from Bashiqa, north east of Mosul. Last night the two countries announced they would be conducting large scale joint military exercises along the northern border, publishing photographs of Iraqi and Turkish troops together beside an Iraqi Air Force plane.

Civilian flights to Erbil and Sulaymaniyah airports have continued, with the exception of Iranian routes. There was some disruption to Turkish Airlines, Royal Jordanian and Atlas Global services on Monday, although all carriers say flights are back on schedule. Iraqi Airways services have continued uninterrupted, although Qatar Airways have suspended their services, as they fly over Iranian airspace. Baghdad’s civil aviation authority maintains the power to close the two KRI airports. Barzani has said that any move to do so would constitute collective punishment against Iraqi Kurds.

The KRI is potentially vulnerable to attacks on its communication infrastructure. On Monday Hiwa Afandi, head of the Kurdistan regional government’s IT department, warned that Turkey and Iran effectively hold the keys to the regions internet access.

 While possible, the cables entering the KRI from the north and east are a vital part of the wider internet infrastructure for the whole of Iraq, with the line from Jordan and the submarine cable in Basra insufficient on their own.

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President Barzani has admitted that the quest for independence is “risky,” but “we are ready to pay any price for our independence.” A day after the referendum, it is impossible to say what the cost of a new country will be.

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