In a few short weeks, the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan is supposed to hold a referendum as to whether the region should secede from the rest of Iraq or not, and eventually form its own state.
While most Kurdish in Iraq like the idea of independence and would doubtless vote for it, the referendum itself, due to be held September 25, is a much-debated topic. Whether the timing is right, whether it is just a way for current Iraqi Kurdish president, Massoud Barzani, to stay in power, whether opponents of the referendum are enemies of the yet-to-be-state – all of these are up for argument.
In an interview, Mahmoud Mohammad, a senior member of, and spokesperson for, Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, tackles some of those controversial questions. The KDP are the prime movers behind the referendum.
If we postponed the referendum for two months, what would that change?
NIQASH: We heard that at the last meeting between the KDP and another major party here, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, you discussed the idea of postponing the referendum.
Mahmoud Mohammad: It was the Iranians [at the meeting] who talked about postponement, not the PUK. The PUK delegation listened to their opinion and understood that they were not happy with the referendum being held. The Iranians outlined a number of problems they see with the referendum. But we should argue against these and make it clear that the referendum is the right of the people of Kurdistan.
NIQASH: But isn’t the Iranian objection a major problem?
Mohammad: We need to convince Iran that the referendum is not a threat. I am sure the referendum is a source of anxiety for them, we just need to do more to ensure that their interests and security are maintained.
NIQASH: And what are your thoughts on other international support for, or against, the referendum?
Mohammad: So far it has not been too bad. If a certain country doesn’t support the referendum it is usually because of their diplomatic relationship with Iraq. But if the referendum is held, these countries will just have to deal with the outcome.
NIQASH: There are rumours that the US is now involved in trying to mediate between Iraqi Kurdistan and the Iraqi government in Baghdad, and that the US hope to make Baghdad accommodate Kurdish demands about military salaries, disputed territories and oil revenues, in return for a postponement of the referendum. Is that true?
Mohammad: Our demands are different now. We want to carry out the referendum in a legal way and move towards independence, after which we will become good neighbours to Iraq and consider one another’s interests.
NIQASH: The Change movement, one of the largest opposition parties in the Iraqi Kurdish region, doesn’t like the idea of the referendum either though. The KDP has plans to hold a meeting with the Change movement. But what if they don’t change their minds?
Mohammad: Even if they don’t join us, why should that stop us from holding the referendum? Sixteen local parties decided on this and we won’t postpone the referendum because only one party is against it. The Change movement and the Islamic group [made up of Iraqi Kurdistan’s major Islamic parties] say the referendum should be postponed. We want to know their reasons. If we postponed the referendum for two months, what would that change? What good is postponement for postponement’s sake?
We are now waiting for the Change movement to set a date for a meeting.
NIQASH: One of the concerns that has been expressed by a number of local politicians is that, after the referendum, the planned parliamentary and presidential elections won’t be held in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Mohammad: The referendum is an individual subject and the elections are another subject altogether. The referendum is not about any particular party or person. It is not about election propaganda. We simply want to explore people’s opinions: Are they for or against independence? The referendum environment is a very different one from an election one.
NIQASH: You and your party say the referendum is just to explore public opinion on the subject. But the discussion around this is more extreme. Basically, members of your party say that anybody who’s against the referendum is a traitor to the Kurdish people. If you’re forcing locals to vote yes, no matter what, then what is the point of even holding a referendum?
Mohammad: This topic – forcing people to vote yes – is only a big deal in the media. We don’t discuss such things in our meetings, nor is it discussed with other parties. It’s a topic that is only found on Facebook and on a few media channels.
NIQASH: In terms of Kurdish independence, critics of the idea have said that Iraqi Kurdistan has hardly been able to maintain a real democracy, or even pay its civil servants recently. How can the politicians currently in power be trusted to build a state?
Mohammad: We want to be a state so we can solve those problems. Because we are not a state, we cannot take any action to improve the regional economy or to pass laws that would secure democratic norms. That’s why we want a state: To improve those things.
NIQASH: And what about elections? The current parliamentary period is coming to an end and there is no clear information on elections. Will the current term be extended?
Mohammad: We hope not. If we do that, it will be because there was no other alternative. President Barzani has said that elections should be held on time. If we cannot do that, then the only solution will be an extension.