Kurds seeking independence did not justify Iraqi violence but Iraqi violence now justifies Kurds seeking independence. The needlessly harsh Iraqi reaction clarifies the stakes for the world to see if it were paying any great attention.
The referendum was a long time coming. For most of the time I have visited Kurdistan since 2006, independence was on the backburner and they made Iraq work while insisting they would only stay if Iraq remained federal.
Baghdad never fully accepted equality but was relatively weak and the Kurds had a state in all but name. But the game was up when Iraq unilaterally cut Kurdish budget payments and lost a third of the country to Isis in 2014.
A desperate Kurdish people sought to escape a loveless Iraq. The referendum was not a unilateral declaration of independence but the beginning of the bargaining. Self-determination is rarely consensual but the Kurds gave it a try.
Baghdad could have responded politically but instead blockaded international flights – I took one of the last flights out – and then used violence as a first resort in which 60 Peshmerga were killed.
A sophisticated Iraqi Ambassador once said that Iraq should emulate Switzerland, which keeps its neighbours at bay and its different ethnic groups together. But Baghdad’s instinct is centralisation.
On the day of the referendum, I saw joyful crowds in their best and colourful clothes enthusiastically voting in Erbil, Kirkuk and Slemani where the celebratory tracer gun fire was thankfully going the other way.
International observers joined the Kurdish governor of Kirkuk for lunch at his mansion, once the home of Saddam Hussein’s notorious general, Chemical Ali who organised multiple mustard gas attacks against Kurds.
Weeks later Shia militia broadcast triumphalist videos insulting Kurds from the same offices with pictures of Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei in the background. They trampled on the Kurdish flag and the Iraqi commander stopped the police chief speaking Kurdish in a country where Kurdish and Arabic are official languages. The governor was whisked away to safety. 160,000 Kurds also fled from Kirkuk and elsewhere since the Iraqi attacks.
Iraq will ‘keep’ Kurdistan for now but any internal settlement should respect their rights in the Iraqi constitution, long neglected and the cause of the Kurdish attempt to secure statehood. Any deviation from the constitution makes living together untenable in the long term.
If Baghdad continues down the road of punishment, strangulation, and possibly partition of the officially recognised Kurdistan Region, many Kurds will conclude that next time it will be ‘no more Mister Nice Guy.’
Young Kurds who don’t speak Arabic and don’t identify with Iraq will not bow the knee to a sectarian and more corrupt politics that despises their progressive policies and wants, for instance, to ban alcohol and reduce the age of sexual consent and marriage to 9.
Independence may have been forcibly taken off the agenda for a decade or a generation but the impulse remains strong. The problem is that Kurdistan is stuck between competing international relations doctrines of respecting the sovereignty of current members of the UN club and also upholding the right to self-determination.
British and American diplomats tried to avert the referendum with an alternative based on supporting dialogue with Baghdad and a referendum if that didn’t work out in a year or two. Sadly, the final offer was only delivered hours before the referendum. There was no guarantee that Baghdad would play ball and it seems likely they wanted to cut the Kurds down to size anyway.
Kurds feel abandoned by the world, despite their courage in defeating our common enemy Isis, but must get their act together for the next phase in the long struggle for freedom. They may be out of sight but should not be out of our minds in the dark days they are enduring. The Kurds are down but far from out.
This article appears in the Newcastle Journal on 11 November 2017. Gary Kent is the Secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on the Kurdistan Region in Iraq and writes in a personal capacity @garykent