Iraqi Kurds voted in their independence referendum. Now what?

 In World
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For millions of ethnic Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan, Monday was a historic day. After a century of despair and neglect, they had the chance to vote for their own independence in a controversial referendum staged by the Kurdistan Regional Government — the body that holds sway over the predominantly Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. Official results are expected in the coming days, with a “yes” vote in favor of independence almost certain to win out.

But for everyone else in the region, this is where the problems begin. U.N. Secretary General António Guterres issued a statement on Monday lamenting the “potentially destabilizing effects” of the vote. The Iraqi government, as well as Turkey and Iran — nations on Iraqi Kurdistan’s borders with sizable Kurdish minorities of their own — have rejected the referendum. Kurdish officials insist the vote is nonbinding, and see it instead as a demonstration of the Kurdish will for self-determination and a pointed message to Baghdad.

But the Iraqi government sent a message of its own, announcing that it was conducting joint military exercises with Turkey near Iraqi Kurdish territory. Iran did the same along its borders and closed its airspace to flights coming in and out of Iraqi Kurdistan.

What was the referendum about?

KRG officials argue that this moment has been long overdue. Since the U.S.-led removal of the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein in 2003, the Iraqi Kurds have enjoyed a great degree of autonomy from Baghdad and, blessed with considerable oil resources, have been able to build up institutions of a potential future state. Kurdish peshmerga militia have fought on the front lines against the Islamic State, a struggle that has seen close security cooperation between their forces and the United States.

Kurdish politicians, in particular Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish regional president, now sense their moment is nigh amid the upheavals and conflicts roiling Iraq and Syria. And they see a government in Baghdad, led by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, that has turned cold toward the Kurds and is barely able to protect its own people.

“Changes happened also about 100 years ago, and the Kurds were bystanders,” Bayan Sami Adbul Rahman, the KRG’s top representative in Washington, told me earlier this year, referring to the Kurds’ historic sense of dispossession as new states emerged out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. “We are not going to be bystanders again.”

A “yes” vote should kick-start a process of negotiations that would pave the way for an eventual separation from Iraq, Abdul Rahman said.

But some critics within the notoriously fractious KRG see the referendum as a bid by Barzani and his ruling party to consolidate power. Two rival prominent Iraqi Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Movement for Change, grumbled about the referendum but eventually got on board.

“Both parties see the referendum as a power grab by Barzani, whose grip has been weakened by a prolonged economic downturn triggered by the fall in global oil prices,” wrote Amberin Zaman in Al-Monitor.

Provocatively, the referendum was also staged in the disputed, oil-rich province of Kirkuk, where peshmerga fighters have held sway since 2014, when they rushed into the provincial capital to defend it from the Islamic State. The prospect of violence now seems particularly high there.

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