Tuesday 15 October 2019

Kurdish vote divides friends and sets the region on edge

Iraq's prime minister Haider al-Abadi.
Iraq's prime minister Haider al-Abadi.

Josie Ensor in Beirut

Adel Jamil and Omed Mohammed had always made a point of not discussing politics.

Mr Jamil, the manager of a jewellery shop, would drink sugary tea and talk about his favourite soap opera each morning with his old friend, who runs the neighbouring barbers in the city of Kirkuk in northern Iraq.

Now, the subject has become impossible to avoid.

Residents of Kirkuk and Iraqi Kurdistan will go to the polls tomorrow for a controversial referendum on independence, which if they vote "yes" as expected, will begin the process of turning their autonomous enclave into an independent state.

Mr Jamil (50) an Arab, wants his shop to remain in the federal republic of Iraq and plans to vote "no". Mr Mohammed, a Kurd, wants his to be part of a new Kurdish nation.

For generations Mr Mohammed's family and others like his have dreamt of this day, when they can right a historical wrong they believe was committed when Britain and France carved up the Middle East in a post-World War I deal, which left the Kurds without a homeland.

With some 35 million scattered across Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, Kurds are the largest stateless ethnic group in the world.

At the heart of the contest is Kirkuk, a multi-ethnic city claimed by both Iraq and the Kurds which lies on an ocean of oil. Kurds feel a deep, historical connection with the city, which is just an hour's drive from Kurdistan's capital Erbil. They make up just shy of 50pc of Kirkuk's one million population, while Arabs account for 30pc and Turkmen 20pc.

Of the Kirkuk council's 41 members, 23 last month voted to take part in the referendum, all of whom Kurdish. The remaining Arab and Turkmen members abstained, denouncing the vote as unlawful.

But Iraq's parliament says the city, home to some four pc of the world's oil reserves, is rightfully theirs, under its constitution and has authorised Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi to "take all measures" to preserve national unity.

The Kurdish flag, with its red-white-green tricolors and blazing golden sun, festoons just about every building in the city. Billboards exhort "the time is now - say 'yes' to a free Kurdistan!"

"Baghdad doesn't care about the Kurds," Mr Mohammed (45) says as he shaves a tick into his customer's hair, a symbol showing which way he intends to vote. "We can't just wait for them to start treating us as equals, we must demand it."

Kirkuk was taken over by the Peshmerga, Kurdistan's official military force, in 2014 after Iraqi forces withdrew in the face of a fierce assault by Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) militants. It gave Kurds sudden de facto control of a place they have long claimed.

Since then the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) has managed affairs in the city, bypassing Iraq's central government to sell crude pumped from the oilfields to international buyers.

Under the terms of an arrangement set up after the removal of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Kurds are supposed to receive 17pc of government revenues. But Kurdish officials believe Baghdad has consistently short-changed them of this constitutionally mandated share.

Kirkuk was meant to have a census under Iraq's new constitution drawn up in 2005 but ethnic and religious tensions meant that it never actually went ahead.

The Kurds were brutally repressed under Saddam, whose troops arrested, tortured and killed hundreds of thousands in an attempt to ethnically cleanse the region. Tens of thousands more were forcibly displaced from Kirkuk and surrounding areas. They have been returning in recent years but campaigning for the referendum has opened old wounds.

Some worry the vote has turned into an emotional one and that behind the nationalist fervour there is no coherent plan for an independent state.

"The Kurdish parliament hasn't convened for two years and [Kurdistan President Masoud] Barzani doesn't even have a mandate [which expired in 2015]," says Mr Jamil. "They haven't shown us what this state would actually look like. People haven't been paid proper salaries since 2014, no one comes into my shop any more because no one has the money to. And now they are preparing for a war over this."

He says that while his friendship with his "brother" Mr Mohammed is strong enough to weather what comes next, he fears that the referendum could divide the city irrevocably.

A "yes" vote would not mean immediate independence for the Kurdish region since the referendum is non-binding, meaning it does not have legal force.

But Kurdish officials say they will use it to pressure the Iraqi government in Baghdad to come to the negotiating table and formalise their bid. If they do break away, it would be the most significant redrawing of borders in the region since the creation of Israel in 1948. It will split Iraq, tearing away a Switzerland-sized chunk.

Critics of the vote, or at least the timing of it, include the UK, US, UN, EU and even members of the 5.5 million-strong Iraqi Kurdish population, who say pursuing independence represented too great a risk while Iraq is still fighting Isil.

They have pushed Mr Barzani for a delay and even offered him a diluted alternative, to no avail.

Mr Barzani, a 71-year-old guerrilla leader-turned-politician who heads the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), is striking while the iron is hot.

He knows Iraq is militarily weak as it reels from the nine-month offensive to retake Mosul.

And the West is indebted to him for his army's help in the fight against terror.

"Now is our time," he told a 100,000 -strong crowd in Erbil on Friday. "No one can stop us achieving our dream."



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