Iraqi Kurdistan has been made possible by US power projection. In the late 1980s, Iraq’s Kurds fell victim to Saddam Hussein’s genocidal al-Anfal campaign, which included the notorious chemical attack on Halabja. After Saddam’s ejection from Kuwait in 1991, Washington launched Operation Provide Comfort (OPC), a no-fly zone tasked with protecting the Kurds from an al-Anfal repeat, followed in 1997 by Operation Northern Watch (ONW). This did not conclude until the 2003 invasion and ouster of the Ba’ath party.
Under this formidable aegis, the Kurds began building a democratic, religiously tolerant state-within-a-state. In 2005, Iraq approved a new national constitution, which recognised the Erbil-based Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) as a federated regional entity with its own military, the Peshmerga. And by 2006, as Abu Zarqawi’s militants were tearing the flesh from Baghdad’s bones, Erbil was sporting ritzy sky bars atop hotel skyscrapers, where expatriate investors could sip a dram of scotch while they enjoyed live music.
Enter ISIS. The Iraqi army disintegrated in the face of the July 2014 onslaught, and, in the north, the Peshmerga filled the void. Supported by the US-led Operation Inherent Resolve, they were instrumental to fighting at Kirkuk, Mosul, and Sinjar, much of which has been achieved by the Peshmerga’s hardened women fighters.
However, to the south, it was the Hashd al-Shabi, or Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU), who stemmed the ISIS deluge. This amalgamation of forty or so predominantly Shiite militias was created by official decree, and effectively endorsed with a non-sectarian fatwa issued by Iraq’s leading Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Regardless, the PMU is an inherently factional entity, and many of the largest militias are trained and funded directly by Iran. Last November, a law was passed to incorporate the PMU into the Iraqi military, which has potentially amplified Tehran’s already considerable leverage over Baghdad.
Hence, according to KRG President Masoud Barzani, the mechanisms holding a federated Iraq together are no longer working; it is an artificial edifice contested by external powers, and it’s time for the Kurds to step above the parapet and claim their rightful place in the society of states as a sovereign entity. To that end, on 25 September this year, the KRG will conduct a referendum on sovereign independence.
Prima facie, this appears to be a just and hard-earned demonstration of neo-Wilsonian national self-determination, comparable to Kosovo or South Sudan, which ought to be celebrated. Even with byzantine geopolitical implications put aside, however, there are a host of domestic issues which should give pause for caution.
First, the KRG has been politically deadlocked since 2015. Barzani’s second term as President ended in 2013, a legislated extension expired in 2015, and he is currently ruling in an extra-legal vacuum with an authoritarian tincture. This constitutional crisis has a simple cause: the KRG has no internal constitution. A draft was approved in 2009, but its implementation was blocked. Consequently, not only is the man championing independence ruling without a clear mandate, there are no clear legal obligations for a future government to abide by the results of September’s referendum, and presidential elections are being held just two months later.
Second, the KRG’s account book is deep in the red. Article 112 of the 2005 constitution stipulated that revenues from ‘present fields’ throughout Iraq would be distributed proportionately by Baghdad, which amounted to a 17% share of the federal budget allocated to the KRG. However, Erbil interpreted this as meaning that revenues from oil fields developed inside Kurdistan since 2005 would be entirely their own, and in 2007 began signing independent contracts with foreign oil companies.
In 2013, the KRG built a pipeline for direct export to Turkey, and Baghdad cracked. Seeing this as an explicit contravention of the constitution and the creation of a new internal competitor that would drive oil prices down, Baghdad stopped sending Erbil the $10 billion in annual funding it had hitherto enjoyed. Consequently, the KRG is suffering from an acute financial crisis, and is fighting a war whilst in excess of $22 billion in debt. The KRG is acutely landlocked, and declaring independence may only intensify this economic isolation.
Third, the referendum is being held in four governorates that are not currently administered by Erbil; Diyala, Kirkuk, Salah ad Din, and Ninveh. This amounts to 45% of the eligible vote. Article 140 of the 2005 constitution stipulated that binding status referendums would be held in these provinces by 2007 to explicitly delineate the KRG’s borders, but this simply never occurred. The province of greatest significance is Kirkuk with its enormous proven oil reserves, a vital source of revenue for bankrolling postwar reconstruction projects. This a ready-made formula for future border disputes. Moreover, many of those eligible to vote are not Kurdish, and fear of ethnic domination from Erbil has the potential to result in further sectarian violence.
For all its imperfections, the prospect of a democratic, religiously tolerant Kurdish state with a demonstrated commitment to the empowerment of women declaring sovereign independence in heart of a bloodied Middle East is truly exhilarating. But it is a false hope; Iraqi Kurdistan is beset by too many internal challenges, and September’s referendum may only make the situation worse.
John Goldie is the Middle East and North Africa Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.