The Iraqi Kurds are planning to hold an independence referendum on the 25th of September. The United States government has opposed the referendum and suggested that the “referendum is distracting from efforts to defeat ISIS and stabilize the liberated areas.” Even more contentious for the United states is that the referendum will also take place in disputed areas, a move the White House insists is “provocative and destabilizing.”
But it was in fact Baghdad, and not the Kurdish Regional Government, which failed to implement article 140 of the Iraqi constitution. Known also as the Kirkuk status referendum, it is part of a plebiscite which would decide if Diyala, Kirkuk, Salah ad Din, and Ninawa governorates would be incorporated into the Kurdish autonomous region. This was supposed to happen in 2007, but the day never came.
Instead, The Kurds of Iraq were pressured by the West to accept delaying the execution of article 140 indefinitely. If article 140 was implemented, most likely the Kurds wouldn’t have pushed today for independence now.
The United States is of course no alone in voicing protest against the referendum. Last week Iraq, Iran, and Turkey expressed concerns that the referendum, puts “Iraq’s hard-earned gains against DEASH under great risk”, and “stressed the importance of keeping the focus on liberating the remaining areas that are still under DEASH control”.
However, the Iraqi Kurds rightfully argue that the referendum will not undermine the fight against ISIS, because quite evidently, their job is almost over. The Kurdish war effort against Daesh is now largely complete. And inspite of this, the Kurds are still manning the trench lines, and are ready to coordinate with Iraqi forces. Today they even reached an agreement with Iraqi forces after 2 days to assist the Hawija operation.
In all honesty, if there is a threat to the fight against ISIS, it is the Iraqi paramilitary groups who have shown an interest in attacking Kurds on the instigation of Iran.
It should be recalled that it was the Kurds who defended Kirkuk and the disputed areas when Iraqi forces fled in June 2014. Some foreign observers mistakenly described this as a land grab. One wonders if they wanted the Kurds to simply give the oil-rich Kirkuk to ISIS.
The Kurds defended Kirkuk again when ISIS attacked on 21 October 2016. One Peshmerga saved the lives of 70 people. Moreover, several Christian female students from Kirkuk were rescued from ISIS by the Kurds.
In August 2014, also the Kurdish Peshmerga forces fled many of their positions, when ISIS attacked the Kurds. This unfortunately led to a genocide on the Kurdish Yezidi minority in Sinjar. But after the US-led coalition backed the Kurds, they managed to quickly reorganize and push back ISIS from most areas and held the lines surrounding Mosul until the Iraqi security forces arrived in November 2016 for the first time.
Now the Kurds say they are ready to continue the fight against terror they have played a crucial role in since 2003.
“We reaffirm to the UN Security Council that our fight against terror will continue,” Kurdish president Masoud Barzani told a rally in Erbil on Friday reported Reuters, dismissing concerns that the vote would undermine the fight against ISIS.
In fact, ISIS has already been largely defeated. Mosul and Tal Afar has fallen, and Raqqa, it’s Syrian capital is soon to fall to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Russian-backed Syrian government and the US-backed SDF are now on the verge of defeating ISIS in the Deir ar-Zor province.
The only areas that still have to be taken are the Arab-majority areas of western Anbar and Hawija where the Kurds will play no active combat role. However, the Kurds say they are ready to continue cooperation with Iraqi forces.
Last week, the Iraqi PM Haider Abadi announced the operations to liberate western Anbar and Hawija. Moreover, he issued military threats against the referendum and said Iraq could ‘intervene militarily’, while the Kurds say they would defend their areas.
“So they've already kicked off operations in Hawija this morning, they've already made significant progress there, while at the same time, doing that out in Western Anbar,” coalition spokesperson Colonel Ryan Dillon told reporters last Thursday. “The current discussions about the Kurdish referendum have been a distraction in our pursuit of a common goal. But I must emphasize that the referendum is a political decision,” he added.
The Kurdish journalist Mohammed Salih however argues that the argument that the referendum destabilizes the war efforts is simplistic, if not untrue. “The referendum comes at a time when the vast majority of Iraqi territory has been recovered and it's obvious that ISIS has lost morale,” he told the Region.
“Besides, the US has not showed proper understanding of the reasons behind the Kurdish push for independence. And it has not been helpful in trying to find solutions. All it has done is issuing veiled threats against Kurds, and putting itself on the same side as Iran and Shia militias in opposing Kurdistan's legitimate referendum,” he said.
It seems the real reason that the US wants to uphold its failed one Iraq policy of the past and appease Iran and Turkey. Although Kurds were hoping the new Trump administration would break this status quo, with a Kurdish father even naming his son Trump, it seems the US president Donald Trump allowed the State Department officials who served in the previous administrations to continue their old ‘one Iraq’ policies that contributed to the rise of the former Iraqi PM Nouri Maliki who marginalized the Sunni Arabs and lost Mosul and Iraqi cities to ISIS.
Even US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whose previous oil deals in Iraq and Kurdistan as the head of executive of Exxonmobil were described by the New York Times as undermining Iraq’s government after his nomination by president Trump, didn’t change the policies of the US in favour of the Kurds.
Former US ambassador John Bolton, who last year was expected to get a senior position in the administration, but did not get any position, had a different tone than the current Trump administration. “I strongly support holding the Kurdish referendum; it’s time for the Kurdish people in Iraq to give a voice to their aspirations,” he wrote on Twitter.
But surprisingly the US president Trump issued a joint statement with the Turkish president Erdogan against the referendum.
Rather than undermining the referendum by issuing threats, the US should pressure Baghdad and especially the Iranian-backed Shia paramilitary groups to keep the focus on ISIS, and not attack the Kurdish forces. The Kurds say that even after the referendum, independence could take years of negotiations. After the referendum, the US can focus on supporting negotiations and dialogue between Baghdad and the Kurds to reach an amicable divorce or come with alternatives.