Kurdistan: An Explainer

Overview

On September 25, 2017, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) held a referendum for its independence from Iraq. The referendum was called by the President of the KRI, Masoud Barzani. The KRI is known as a “semi-autonomous” zone in northern Iraq. 92% of the 3.3 million voters in the referendum voted or secession, with a turnout rate of 72.61%. The referendum was meant to apply to all of the territory that the Iraqi Kurds currently occupy, which they extended beyond the semi-autonomous region when they won back territory from ISIS in 2016 and 2017. Iraq’s president, Haidr al-Abadi strongly opposed the referendum, along with many surrounding countries and Western allies of the new Iraqi government. Turkey and Iran are home to many Kurds of their own, so they fear the ethnic group gaining more political power in neighboring Iraq. In Iraq, about 15-20% of the total population of 37 million is Kurdish.

KRI’s Preparedness for Independence

Although the people of the KRI clearly want independence, the KRI government is quite ill-prepared for statehood. It is deeply indebted and defended by a fighting force (the Peshmurga) that is deeply divided into multiple family-led factions. Additionally, President Barzani has extended his rule twice and shut down Parliament to when it threatened to limit his powers. There is no mechanism or agreement that enforces the Kurdish referendum, so secession is unlikely. Barzani nevertheless wanted to get the vote off before the KRI’s presidential elections on November 1st of 2017.

History of Kurdistan Political Status in Iraq

At the end of the Gulf War in 1991, Saddam Hussein allowed Kurdistan to become fully autonomous, though not independent from Iraq. In 2003, following the US invasion of Iraq, the KRI gave up its autonomy and became “semi autonomous,” meaning the US and Iraqi government had more power over the region. Since 2003, the KRI has increased its power by expanding the territory its forces control (which it won back from ISIS), and increasing its oil exports significantly.

Sources

The Economist: Sept 23rd, 2017

The BBC

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