By: Zack Duvall
With Kurdish voters set to vote on independence from Iraq, many U.S. foreign policy experts are weighing in on the subject and how it would impact the U.S. decision-making in that part of the world.
For decades, the Kurdish people have been the target of numerous Baathist-led governments in Iraq that have long been actively seeking the destruction of Kurdistan and the removal of the Kurdish people from their ancestral lands in an effort to re-populate the area with ethnic Arabs.
However, since American-led protection policies towards the Kurds have been implemented, starting in 1991, the Kurdish people have developed their proto-state into a thriving, and largely autonomous, region located in Northern Iraq.
Important to U.S. interests in the Middle East in more ways than one, they are considered a vital fighting force on the ground in America’s fight against the Islamic State in Iraq, while at the same time are considered an important part of America’s involvement in the Syrian civil war.
Kurdistan has been impacted by virtually every major crisis the Middle East is currently facing including the rise of ISIS, Iranian aggression in the region and the oil crisis that crippled their economy in 2014.
On Sunday, thousands of enthusiastic and flag-waving Kurds filled a stadium in the Kurdish Capital of Erbil chanting “bye-bye Iraq!” for a pro-independence rally held to fire-up support for the referendum at the center of the vote.
In response to the vote, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned that the Iraqi government would take all “”necessary measures” to preserve the country’s “unity”.
Although he would not elaborate on what those measures would be, both Turkey and Iran have started conducting military drills on their borders with Iraq, and Iran has ceased all flights to and from Kurdish airports at the request of the Iraqi government.
The U.S. Embassy in Iraq has said that officials are working closely with both Iraqi and Kurdish leaders to keep the vote and all activities surrounding it peaceful. But have issued several warnings to American citizens to exercise caution when traveling around the area of Kurdistan.
With 30 million Kurds spread throughout several countries in the region, mainly Iraq and Syria but with thriving enclaves in Turkey and Iran as well, the Kurdish people are considered to be the world’s largest ethnic group without a homeland after being denied statehood when the Middle Eastern map was redrawn following WWI.
Although the central part of the region known as Kurdistan is within Iraq, the area looks and feels as though it is its own country in a variety of ways.
Kurdish citizens elect their own government, follows their own set of customs and speaks their own language with very few young Kurds speaking Arabic anymore.
Schoolchildren are also taught that they are not Iraqis and that they live in Kurdistan while in school.
The relationship between Kurdistan and Iraq, historically, has always been very volatile and the Kurds have endured horrific genocide under multiple regimes in Iraq, with over 100,000 Kurdish men, women and children slaughtered in 1988 alone.
But as of late, the relationship between the two governments has been somewhat of a functional relationship given the tremendous animosity many Kurds feel towards Baghdad for past atrocities.
A brief timeline of the relationship for the past two decades is as follows:
2003: After the U.S. invasion that toppled the Hussein regime the Kurdish and Iraqi governments relied on mutual support and American aid to sustain daily operations. However, the partnership was the subject of numerous public quarrels and disputes, leading many experts to call the relationship “dysfunctional”.
2006: After a swift uptick in Kurdish nationalist movements, a Kurdistan based agency hired an American advertising firm to produce a campaign that highlighted the differences between quality of life in Kurdistan and Iraq, even developing the slogan “Kurdistan- The other Iraq”. A move that angered a struggling Iraqi parliament.
2014: Pesh Merga fighters seized the city of Kirkuk and its oil fields from ISIS militants and claimed the territory for Kurdistan infuriating Iraqi leaders who in turn cancelled budget payments to Kurdistan at a time when the Kurds were feeling intense economic strain from dropping oil prices.
Present: Iraqi officials have praised the efforts of Kurdish fighters in the fight against error organizations in the country, particularly ISIS and Al-Qaeda, but have taken an intensely tough stance on any talks or attempts of Kurdish independence.
With support the highest it has ever been in Kurdistan for independent statehood, all eyes are on hoe the U.S. will handle the situation if the vote goes through and passes successfully.
Officials in Washington maintain that they are in constant contact with all “relevant parties”.
President Trump has yet to weigh in on the issue.