Iraq’s Kurds went to the polls today (25 September) to vote on whether to become a new state, independent of Iraq. According to Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty (RFERL) the vast majority will have voted “yes” to the question on the ballot paper: “Do you want the Kurdistan region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region’s administration to become independent of the state?”
There are complex issues surrounding the vote, however. There is near-unanimous opposition to the referendum in the Middle East, particularly from Baghdad. But Iraqi Kurdish regional President Masud Barzani said it had to go ahead, particularly as the Kurds postponed one in 2014 to deal with the threat of Islamic State, “a victory in which the Kurds had played a major part”, RFERL said.
A further dilemma lies with the wording on the ballot paper about “Kurdistani areas outside the region’s administration”, namely the disputed border provinces of Nineveh, Kirkuk and Diyala, which Kurdish forces took control of during the fight against IS. Kirkuk is oil-rich and a great source of revenue to whoever controls it; there are currently no Iraqi soldiers on the ground in that province.
Christians in the area are split over the vote, but some say the referendum could spark another civil war, a source told World Watch Monitor. The Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Popular Council, holding two of five seats reserved for Christians in the Kurdish parliament, leans towards a “yes”, while the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM), which holds the three other seats, will say “no” because it does not agree that the Nineveh Plains should be included in the vote. The ADM believes including this region will bring conflict to the Christians living there. “The Nineveh Plains are a disputed area because several minorities live there, including Yazidis and others. So in the case of a civil war this might become one of the most affected areas. The Iraqi government has been fierce in their threats against this referendum, and there have also been [objections from] neighbouring countries,” the source said.
There are other concerns for Christians. Although Kurdish leaders have said they welcome ethnic and religious diversity, Kurdistan “limits both their ability to express themselves politically and, because many Christians eschew the dominant Kurdish political parties, also undercuts job prospects”, according to former Pentagon official Michael Rubin, writing in the Washington Examiner. Conflicted by these issues, Rubin asks: “Will the Kurdish referendum be followed by Christian and Yazidi referenda?”