On Wednesday, June 7, the government of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan announced that an independence referendum would be held on Monday, September 25. The statement specifically notes that people in Iraqi Kurdistan “as well as those living in the disputed areas” will vote on independence. This referendum is likely to bring resistance from the Iraqi government in Baghdad. The decision was made at a meeting held between representatives of the region’s political parties and President Masoud Barzani. According to the government’s statement, regional political parties, which have clashed in recent months, will resolve outstanding political and economic issues prior to the date of the referendum.
Demonstrations and other political events are likely in the run-up to the referendum in both the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan region and in Baghdad.
Autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan officially includes three provinces (Erbil, Dahuk, and Sulaymaniyah) protected by a security force (peshmerga) independent from the Iraqi government. The people of Iraqi Kurdistan largely support the idea of independence, but the referendum will face major challenges from within the Kurdish, Iraqi, and Turkish governments.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s economy is dependent on oil exports. Depressed oil prices, as well as regional instability caused in part by the Islamic State (IS), have led rival Kurdish factions to clash in recent months as different groups compete for influence and control in various regions. In Baghdad, the Iraqi government will almost certainly oppose Kurdish independence, especially given the statement’s indication that it will include disputed territories like the oil-rich province of Kirkuk. Furthermore, most of the oil Iraqi Kurdistan exports passes through a pipeline to the Turkish port in Ceyhan, giving Turkey – which may oppose independence out of hand because of the implications it could have in its decades-long armed conflict with the country’s large Kurdish minority – significant leverage over the prospective independent Kurdish state. This could in turn further increase opposition in Baghdad, which may consider unacceptable the idea that part of its territory could become an independent state under Turkish influence given Baghdad’s poor relationship with Ankara.
Individuals in Iraq are advised to monitor the situation and to avoid all protests.
The security environment in Iraq remains complex. Although travel is permissible in some areas, other areas should be considered strictly off limits. Professional security advice and support should be sought prior to all travel. While Iraqi Kurdistan is relatively far from the frontlines of the campaign against the Islamic State and has generally been more secure than the rest of the country, the risk of intra-Kurdish clashes suggests additional caution should be adopted for the foreseeable future.
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