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Kurds' referendum call raises the stakes

Semi-autonomous region has firmly put itself on path to independence. But the view from Baghdad is far from favourable.
Last modified: 4 Jul 2014 20:53

"Kurdish-occupied Iraq. That's a good name for it."

I was barely able to supress my laughter when I heard these words, thinking my friend was serious.

"Or they could call it the country formally known as the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq. That might even get them a world record for the world's longest name for a country."

With that comment, the laughter I was trying to suppress burst out.

"Look, in all seriousness, Imran, don't quote me, but understand me. This day will be remembered as the beginning of the end for Iraq."

I've promised I wouldn't  name him, so let's just say I've known him for a while and my friend is not prone to exaggeration, so to hear him react in this way to the news from Kurdistan is a good indication of what people in the capital are thinking.

The Kurds have firmly put themselves on the path to independence.

The president of the Kurdish Regional Government, Masoud Barzani, with a declarative ‎[in more ways than one] statement to a closed session of the Kurdish parliament, asked the legislators to make "preparations to begin to organise a referendum on the right of self determination".

It was a bold move that elicited anger and even accusations of blackmail.

But rhetoric aside, is my friend right? Is this the day that will be ‎remembered as the beginning of the end?

Parliamentarian's views

Amar Touma is a member of parliament from Prime Minister Nouri-al Maliki's State of Law party.

He is one of the angry ones saying the action by the Kurds is wrong.

"We believe that the establishment of the Kurdish state at these crucial times is a betrayal of the bond we have as brothers and politicians," he said.

Touma's words will have little impact on the Kurdish people, however.

For far too long they've been suspicious of Arab Iraq. After 1991 the Gulf War left Iraq reeling but Saddam Hussein still in power. 

The Americans, British and French, fearing what Saddam might do, set up no-fly zones in the north and south of the country and enforced them with a heavy hand.

The Kurds took full advantage. Using oil money they built, in effect, a separate state that required Arabs to register if they wanted to visit.

After the  invasion and occupation ‎of Iraq in 2003, that separate state become further cemented as the 2005 constitution of Iraq made provisions for the Kurds to run their own affairs.

Sense of betrayal

In the years since, the Kurds have felt betrayed by the Arabs and vice versa.

Then in 2013 a budget dispute between Baghdad and Kurdistan meant Baghdad simply stopped its payments.

The Kurds protested. To no avail. The Kurds then began to sell oil to the Turks, a move that further infuriated Baghdad.

Then in June, the group now calling itself the Islamic State took over huge swathes of northwestern Iraq right on the border with Kurdistan, and at that point the Kurds decided to take matters into their own hands, which has now brought them to the potential referendum for ‎independence. 

Wehda al-Jumaili is another Iraqi MP, from the the Wataniyah bloc. She is well aware of the anger of the Kurds which she thinks is what has forced them to take this decision.

"‎These attempts have taken place many times in the past, but they always fell on deaf ears.

"This time it seems suitable factors have  built up day by day and the Kurds have taken advantage of them to announce their long-sought state.

"That said, we believe that is the beginning of the disintegration of Iraq and Iraqis at this point do not favour such move."

Jumaili's language is interesting: "At this point".

'One day' never came

For far too long the Kurds have heard that. It implies that their desire for either more independence or full independence will be discussed "one day".

And it has always frustrated them as that "one day" never seemed to come. Well, now it seems that "one day" is here.

Yet several questions remain unanswered.

What kind of state will this be?

One with a militancy raging next door as the Islamic State continues to occupy territory? What about defence of the state?

Who will defend this new, small country if it is attacked by another country?

Where will the new state's borders lie? 

These are all questions being asked not only in the Kurdistan region, but also in Baghdad and, going by my conversations with people here, it seems the view from the Iraqi capital is far from favourable.

Follow Imran Khan on Twitter @ajimran