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Don’t Mention The Referendum:
Nobody Wants To Talk About Kurdish Independence Now

Histyar Qader
Most Iraqi Kurds like the idea of independence from Iraq. Many voted for it last year. But as Kurdish politicians went to Baghdad after the elections, it was clear that this was topic non grata during discussions.
31.05.2018  |  Erbil
A scene from the rally on the independence referendum last year. (photo: حمه سور)
A scene from the rally on the independence referendum last year. (photo: حمه سور)

After the results of Iraq’s federal elections were announced, Iraqi Kurdish politicians were ready to head to Baghdad to begin their part in negotiations to form the next coalition government.

On May 22, a delegation from one of the semi-autonomous northern region’s major political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, or KDP, was winging its way to Baghdad from Erbil. The following day a delegation from the other major party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, was off, flying out of Sulaymaniyah. Both parties were the major winners in Iraqi Kurdistan after the elections on May 12.

This referendum was part of a vicious circle that impacted badly on all Iraqis and it is in the past. This topic won’t be part of upcoming negotiations.

Their departure fuelled another round of satire on Kurdish social media, based on the ill-fated Kurdish referendum on independence held late last year. The referendum, which asked whether Kurds wanted to separate from Iraq and form their own country, was opposed by the federal government in Baghdad and after the Iraqi government pushed back, Kurdish zones of influence were vastly reduced. Which is why questions like: What country will you travel to when you get your Kurdish passport? still cause a snigger or two. Especially as the Iraqi Kurdish politicians set off to Baghdad, considerably humbled, and without a Kurdish passport in sight.

For the first time, Iraqi Kurdish political parties don’t hold the threat of Kurdish independence as a bargaining chip, even though most Kurds would doubtless still consider it a long-term objective. The failure of the referendum on Kurdish independence – even though 90 percent of those who voted said they wanted it – has considerably weakened Kurdish politicians in Baghdad.

“The issue of the referendum was only discussed briefly during negotiations and talks mostly focused on how to implement the Iraqi Constitution,” says Senior KDP member, Khasro Goran, who went to Baghdad with his party’s delegation. “We didn’t talk about whether it was important to consider the referendum results.”

It is true that this set of negotiations is different, admits Khaled Shawani, a member of the PUK delegation to Baghdad. But that is perhaps not surprising given that the Kurdish have gone through some of the worst political experiences they have ever dealt with, in the recent past.

“The status of Kurdish politics is different from previous negotiations,” Shawani agreed. “Neither the referendum nor the threat of independence are strong cards to play anymore.”

And so it seems the Iraqi Kurdish politicians have decided to abide by Baghdad’s “red line” – the integrity of Iraqi territory –and they won’t mention the referendum.



The reluctance of the Kurdish politicians to touch on this issue was matched only by the reluctance of Arab politicians, those who consider themselves political allies of the Kurds in Baghdad, to discuss it.

The fact that the PUK and KDP visited Baghdad is a sign of their commitment to the Iraqi state, said Ahmed al-Assadi, a member of the Fatah, or Victory, block made up mostly of members of the Shiite Muslim militias that fought the extremist Islamic State group.

“Anyway talking about the referendum is useless because Iraq’s highest court annulled it,” al-Assadi argued. “This referendum was part of a vicious circle that impacted badly on all Iraqis and it is in the past. This topic won’t be part of upcoming negotiations.”

Nonetheless this attitude – don’t mention the referendum – presents an issue for Iraqi Kurdish politicians. The Kurdish authorities themselves have not accepted the annulment of the referendum and many, possibly most, of their constituents were clearly in favour of Kurdish independence. So on one hand, the voters in the northern region want to know what will become of their decisions on statehood and on the other hand, Iraqi Arab politicians in Baghdad don’t want to discuss the delicate subject.

Abdullah Warti, a former member of Iraqi Kurdistan’s now-defunct High Council on the Referendum, says the whole topic is “dormant” but also a “victory” and that it will be reactivated when the time is right.

“If the Kurdish delegation to Baghdad is weak then it won’t be able to use the referendum as a bargaining chip now,” Warti argues. “But the powerful in Iraqi Kurdistan should be careful to hang onto their supporters of the referendum. Otherwise public opinion will turn against them in the northern region.”

It is clear that nobody wants to talk about the Kurdish referendum, Ihsan al-Shammari, a politics professor at Baghdad University and head of a local think tank, the Iraqi Centre for Political Thought, told NIQASH. “The Kurdish delegations went to Baghdad to demonstrate that they agree with ideas on Iraqi territorial integrity. In the future, they will demand Kurdish rights again, but only as they are outlined in the Iraqi Constitution.”

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