The Kurdish region of Iraq is under pressure to scrap an independence vote that critics say could hinder the fight against Islamic State militants.

Kurds rally for an independence referendum in Iraq, Beirut, Lebanon, 17 September 2017 (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

News-Decoder correspondent Harvey Morris has extensive experience living and working in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

“I first visited Iraqi Kurdistan in 1975, months after Saddam Hussein’s regime had crushed the Kurds’ latest rebellion against Baghdad. In 1991, I watched as Saddam turned on the Kurds after he was driven from Kuwait. In 2014, with Islamic State militants banging at the door, I found a territory transformed from the impoverished and isolated backwater I had encountered four decades earlier.”

In 2014, Morris was editor of Rudaw English online, part of a Kurdish media network. He wrote about his 1991 experiences for News-Decoder in this 2015 article.

In an 11th hour appeal to the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, the United Nations Security Council has said its planned referendum next week on full independence could disrupt military operations against Islamic State militants and hinder the return of millions of refugees.

In a unanimous statement issued in New York, the world body added its weight to near universal appeals from the Kurds’ allies and neighbors to scrap the vote.

The Iraqi Supreme Court has, meanwhile, ordered the referendum to be suspended pending a final decision on its legality under the Iraqi constitution.

The Kurds are inured to international opposition to what they regard as their legitimate right to rule themselves. Their aspirations towards independence were thwarted in the colonial carve-up of the Ottoman Empire after World War One.

More than five million people are eligible to vote in the referendum, including those who live within the recognized boundaries of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), those in territory such as the city of Kirkuk that is disputed with the government in Baghdad, and diaspora Kurds.

They are among a wider population of Kurds of between 25 and 35 million — the states that rule them deliberately avoid keeping accurate statistics — split between Turkey, Iran and Syria, as well as Iraq.

An uneasy partnership with the national government in Baghdad

The Kurds are a culturally and linguistically distinct population, although a majority follow the Sunni Islam of many of their neighbors.

Only in Iraq, however, have the Kurds won a recognized degree of autonomy, initially under the protection of coalition powers who ousted the forces of their oppressor, Saddam Hussein, from Kuwait in 1991.

Since the 2003 U.S.-led war that toppled Saddam, the KRG has governed its mainly mountainous corner of Kurdistan while maintaining an uneasy partnership with the national government in Baghdad.

In the intervening years, Kurdistan has emerged as the most stable region of Iraq and, initially at least, used its oil wealth to launch a program of rapid development. Disagreement between the KRG capital Erbil and Baghdad over control of that oil has been a central factor in their deteriorating relationship.

With support from, among others, the United States and Iran, the Kurdish peshmerga — the region’s own army — halted the advance of the Islamic State (ISIS) in 2014. The peshmerga were also in the front line of forces that turned the tide against the jihadist forces.

The long-promised referendum was deferred until Mosul, Iraq’s predominantly Arab second city, was liberated from ISIS this summer.

Both Ankara and Tehran fear separatist movements among their Kurds.

As a land-locked territory, the KRG region has been obliged to maintain close relations with its powerful neighbors Turkey and Iran. The Turks are responsible for much of the investment in the semi-autonomous zone.

In part out of concern that an independent Kurdistan would further encourage separatism among their own Kurdish populations, both Ankara and Tehran have been particularly strident in their demands for the referendum to be suspended.

Turkey, Iran and the government in Baghdad have formally agreed to consider unspecified counter-measures against the KRG over the planned vote. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened to impose sanctions and ordered military exercises near the border.

A central argument of opponents of the vote, including Washington, is that the referendum would disrupt continuing operations against IS and hamper the resettlement of refugees from that conflict. The UN Security Council gave voice to those concerns in its statement on Thursday.

The outcome, if indeed the referendum goes ahead, appears to be a foregone conclusion, with polls indicating a comfortable majority for a “yes” vote. However, opinion appears more divided than at the time of an informal poll in 2005, when 98.9 per cent voted in favor of independence.

This time, dissident voices within the KRG are questioning whether the time is right for a vote to go it alone.

Younger Kurds appears less fixated on the issue.

As a consequence of political rifts among leading political parties, enthusiasm for the vote is more evident in the cities of Erbil and Dohuk — strongholds of the dominant Kurdistan Democratic Pary — than in the east of the region, where other parties hold sway.

A “No For Now” movement has been launched, led by a Kurdish businessman and owner of Kurdistan’s NRT TV. Some of the network’s top presenters resigned in protest, underlying divisions over the referendum issue.

Younger Kurds appears less fixated on the issue of an early referendum than on tackling some of the chronic problems — mismanagement, corruption and public sector pay — that faced their region even before the KRG was forced to confront the ISIS invasion of 2014.

One viable theory is that the KRG is using the likely “yes” vote to squeeze Baghdad into making concessions either before or after September 25, or to encourage Erbil’s allies to work to influence Baghdad.

However, talks between the two sides in both Baghdad and Erbil have so far failed to reach a breakthrough that might persuade the referendum’s political sponsors to cancel or postpone the vote.

Alistair Lyon author news decoder-150x150

Harvey Morris was a foreign correspondent for Reuters, The Independent and Financial Times. He covered revolutions, wars, politics and diplomacy in the Middle East, Europe, Africa and North and South America in more than 40 years as a journalist. He did on-the-ground reporting of the Iranian, Portuguese, Nicaraguan and Romanian revolutions, three Iraq wars, Argentina’s ‘dirty war’, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and two Palestinian intifadas. He has written three books on the Middle East and is co-author, with John Bulloch, of the 1992 "No Friends But the Mountains: The Tragic History of the Kurds". Morris writes an entertaining blog, "Idle Thoughts on London Walks".

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