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Sects, Lies And Social Media:
Tall Tales Cause Tensions Ahead Of Kurdish Independence Referendum

Mustafa Habib
They have yet to secede from Iraq but already the Kurdish have their own currency and passports. At least, that’s what Iraqi social media says. But is it true?
20.09.2017  |  Baghdad
Alarming rumour: The Iraqi Kurdish military were headed for a showdown with the federal army.
Alarming rumour: The Iraqi Kurdish military were headed for a showdown with the federal army.

As the date for the planned Iraqi Kurdish referendum on independence nears, it has come to preoccupy Iraqis everywhere in the country, not just in the north. Feelings are running high and as a result it is not just the politicians who are making impassioned statements. On local social media – Facebook is where many Iraqis get their news and information – various stories and rumours about the referendum have been doing the rounds. Tall tales about the Kurdish creating their own currency, printing new non-Iraqi passports and establishing martial law in northern Iraq can all be found online. Only some aspects are true.

A New Currency + New Passports

Within hours the news that the semi-autonomous northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan was already engaged in printing up their own currency had spread across some of the most popular Facebook pages out of Iraq.

Many of the posts referred to a one-hundred-dinar note featuring Mustafa Barzani, one of the best-known figures in modern Kurdish history and founder of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP. The latter is now headed by his son, Iraqi Kurdish leader, Massoud Barzani, one of the main supporters of the independence referendum, scheduled for Sept. 25. The other side of the alleged new bank note showed the Erbil citadel, the historic centre of the capital of the northern region.

Once the images were posted in enough places, a war of words began over them.



Nobody knows exactly where the pictures of the fake bank notes, which look very realistic, have come from but there are some likely sources. In the past, locals have designed would-be bank notes as a kind of patriotic gesture, ready to use in case Iraqi Kurdistan ever becomes a nation. One young man, Asso Mamzade, even came up with a name for the new currency – the kuro, just like the euro, he told NIQASH, way back in 2011.

A similar story doing the rounds on social media involved what looked to be a new passport for Iraqi Kurdistan. A video appeared to show an anonymous person carrying a passport with the emblem of the Kurdish regional government.

Pages in Arabic and Kurdish circulated the video and local media then went further, writing reports saying that the Iraqi Kurdish authorities were already issuing passports.



To stymie the rumours, Dlair Ahmad, head of the General Directorate of Citizenship, part of Iraqi Kurdistan’s Ministry of the Interior, was forced to tell local media that no such passports had been issued. The aim of the various posts on social media was simply to cause problems between Iraqi Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq, Ahmad said.

Later reports in Iraqi Kurdistan found the creator of the “Kurdish passport”. It turned out to have been a young man working at a local print shop. He had made and designed the Kurdish passport by himself and, just like the Kurdish local who designed the new bank notes, he said he had done it because he hoped that one day it would become a reality.


A State Of Emergency

Half-truths have also been circulating about the problematic area of Kirkuk. The city and surrounds are part of Iraq’s “disputed territories” – that is, areas that the Iraqi Kurdish say should be part of their region but which Baghdad says are part of Iraq proper. Kirkuk’s mixed demographic make-up means that tensions can easily arise here, between different sectors of the population, especially when one or other group claims priority. Currently the Iraqi Kurdish authorities are in charge of security here, even though, politically, the area is still part of Iraq.

Despite all this, Kirkuk locals were to vote in the Iraqi Kurdish referendum, as though they were already a part of Iraqi Kurdistan. In Baghdad, the Iraqi Parliament voted to dismiss Kirkuk’s Kurdish governor, Najmuddin Karim, a strong supporter of the independence referendum.

On social media, Iraqis speculated about a state of emergency declared in Kirkuk and the appointment of a military governor to declare martial law there.

It is true that Baghdad politicians voted to dismiss Karim. However, the martial law story is false. Two days after the vote on Karim, Niazi Mimar Oglu, the MP representing the interests of Turkmen in Baghdad, announced that he was lobbying other MPs to vote for the whole of the Kirkuk provincial council to be disbanded and that a military person should be appointed the new governor.

There are significant numbers of the Turkmen ethnic minority living in Kirkuk.

However, while inflammatory, Oglu’s proposal is still only that: a proposal. Nonetheless various media organisations in Iraq wrote that the decision had already been made to appoint Major General Ahmed Nasser Al-Ghannam as Kirkuk’s new governor and that a state of emergency had been imposed. This is not true.

Similarly alarming rumours circulated about how Iraqi troops and Iraqi Kurdish troops were heading for a confrontation. Extra Iraqi army soldiers were apparently moving towards the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan, in order to be ready for any eventuality, the gossips said.

Officials with the Iraqi military in both Baghdad and in Erbil denied this, saying the reports of extra military activity were false and originated on social media.

A similar story said that large numbers of Iraqi Kurdish soldiers were heading for Kirkuk. This information was posted, and circulated on social media, together with a video that showed Iraqi Kurdish military on a highway. “Endless columns of Kurdish troops are coming to Erbil, and are being stationed on the outskirts of Kirkuk. There are more than 51,000 fighters equipped with the latest German weapons,” an alarming caption said.

Upon closer examination though, the video turns out to have been an older one, showing Iraqi Kurdish military heading for Sinjar, west of Mosul, to fight the extremist group known as the Islamic State in 2016.


Major General Ahmed Nasser Al-Ghannam: Was this Kirkuk's new governor?


Double Agents With Humour?

When perusing local social media for information on the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum, one cannot help but run into a few jokes as well. Iraqis tend toward a sardonic sense of humour - but even jokes can be a source of controversy in situations like this.

As tensions between Baghdad and Erbil rise around this weekend’s referendum, there have been many more jokes made at the Kurds’ expense.

Some locals find this suspicious because of what has happened in Iraq in the past. They believe that some of the cruellest humour is part of conspiracy meant to discredit the opposition party in any fight. For example, after an attempted coup against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the 1990s, jokes at the expense of the tribe that attempted the coup – the al-Dulaimi of Anbar – were widely circulated in Iraqi society. The same thing happens every year on the anniversary of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. Most recently, the Kurds have been the target of cruel humour.

The jokes could be the result of the heated online debate about the upcoming referendum or they could be part of a larger conspiracy to discredit and belittle them, some locals argue.


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