In mid-August, rumors and reports circulated that the Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq may postpone its referendum on independence which is set for September 25. However after a week of talks and debate, including calls and pressure from abroad for the Kurds to consider the postponement, KRG President Masoud Barzani has held firm. “Postponing is not a possibility at all,” he was quoted telling a Saudi newspaper.
Kurdistan set its referendum date two months ago and there is now only a month to go until ballots are supposed to be cast. But an array of opposition to the vote has led to discussion in Erbil about what concessions or agreements might be necessary to put off the referendum.
On August 12, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called Barzani and asked the Kurds to reconsider. Barzani’s office stated that “the people of Kurdistan Region would expect guarantees and alternatives for their future,” if they postponed the vote. On August 17, a Kurdish delegation in Baghdad met members of the Shia National Alliance.
Rudaw reported that the KRG could delay the referendum “if Baghdad, under the auspices of the international community promises to set another date for the referendum.”
In each case the Kurds demand that if they agree to postpone their right to a vote, the region receive something major in return. Kurdistan24 reported on Sunday that Mala Bakhtiar, executive secretary of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a leading political party in the KRG, said the Iraqi central government should “assist the Kurds in overcoming a financial crises,” among other issues. According to other reports, the discussions in Baghdad centered around other guarantees relating to the Kurdish region’s oil and who will rule over disputed areas in Kirkuk, Sinjar and Khanaqin.
Ceng Sagnic, coordinator of the Kurdish Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University says the last weeks reveal tremendous pressure on Erbil. “These are all adding up to an image that the KRG is under heavy pressure to delay the referendum because there are rumors the US government is concerned that the referendum [taking place] before the Iraqi general elections will empower Iran’s role in Iraq.”
The Americans don’t want Haider Abadi weakened, especially as he has been a key ally with the US-led coalition against Islamic State. He replaced Nouri al-Maliki, who many blamed for allowing ISIS to conquer Mosul and part of the country in 2014. “As of now there is no decision to delay, the KEG High Election Committee is registering voters names and the budget has been allocated,” says Sagnic. He also says that Kurdish leaders in Erbil are “fed up” with promises from Baghdad and don’t have faith in carrying through its agreements.
The Kurds would want an ironclad guarantee from the US that if they postpone the election, they receive US support at a later date. They also want similar guarantees from Baghdad.
According to sources in Erbil, there’s a feeling that if now is not a good time for a referendum, when is? “If it’s not a good time to be independent, is it a good time to [continue being] a servant,” one Kurdish insider said.
However the KRG faces challenges not only from Baghdad and its friends in Washington, but also from its two neighbors, Turkey and Iran. Both countries have major investments in the Kurdish region. Although both have opposed the referendum and Ankara and Tehran recently held talks on cooperation, there is a feeling that economic interests may be more important than verbal opposition.
To allay regional fears, Barzani and the leaders of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, have stressed that the referendum is for a democratic and pluralistic Kurdistan. The region will be governed by federalism. All this is meant to assuage fears by minorities and smaller parties because the KRG has large numbers of Turkmen, Arabs and various religious minorities from Christian and Yazidi groups. For now September 25 is still the referendum date. Baghdad, riding a wave of power from its victory in Mosul over ISIS and its new battle in Tal Afar, doesn’t seem likely to bend on concessions that would lead to a change.