Iraqi Kurdistan’s Referendum Isn’t About Independence

On the citadel in Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. Ivor Prickett for The New York Times

Iraqi Kurdistan’s plans for a Sept. 25 referendum on independence have been met with frustration from many sides. Neither the United States nor the government in Baghdad, nor other regional capitals like Tehran or Ankara, are pleased with the prospect of a third of Iraq breaking away completely. Such a move, they fear, could further destabilize Iraq and the wider Middle East. The United States is now pushing the Kurdish government to postpone the referendum indefinitely.

Those fears are unfair. After all, the policies of the governments in Baghdad, Tehran, Damascus and Ankara have done more to wreak havoc in the Middle East than Kurdish voters possibly could. Moreover, the excessive focus on those risks misses the real reason the Kurds are planning the referendum in the first place.

Despite legitimate Kurdish aspirations for statehood, the Sept. 25 vote is not necessarily just a push to secure independence. Instead, its purpose is to fundamentally restructure the relationship between the Kurdistan regional government, or K.R.G., and the federal government in Baghdad. In their statements in recent years, senior Kurdish officials have repeatedly signaled — if often implicitly — their willingness to settle for something other than independence, namely a “confederation” between Kurdistan and Iraq.

Kurdish leaders hope that the referendum will draw the outside world’s attention to the Kurds’ cyclical and dysfunctional relationship with the Iraqi government. For decades, this relationship has been characterized by periods of calm, often when Baghdad is weak, followed by conflict when central authorities feel powerful enough to take on the Kurds militarily. Now, longstanding tensions over territory, oil and military affairs seem once again ready to explode into violence.
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The current impasse is the result of mistakes by both the K.R.G. and Baghdad. But the Kurdish cause in Iraq is, at its essence, a matter of long-term security and survival for an ethnic minority group that has been subjected to violent repression for generations. Despite much talk about change in Iraq since 2003, the government in Baghdad — no matter who is in charge — has repeatedly demonstrated that it intends to undermine and dominate the Kurds. Baghdad’s gross mistreatment of Sunni Arabs shows how brutal it can be.

It’s for those reasons that many Kurds see full independence as desirable. But the government in Erbil, the Kurdish government capital, is also aware that it faces strong opposition not just from Baghdad but also from Iran and the United States. Turkey, too, has sent mixed signals and could come to oppose independence. That’s why the Kurdish leadership is, in fact, open to other options, in particular a system that created a confederation of Iraq and what is now the K.R.G. — two separate but united states.

This idea is not as novel as it may sound. In an Aug. 10 phone conversation, Masoud Barzani, the K.R.G. president, said in a statement that he told Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson that “the people of the Kurdistan Region would expect guarantees and alternatives for their future” if they were to postpone the referendum as Mr. Tillerson had requested. Mr. Barzani’s statement indicates that he is willing to settle for something other than independence. It also echoes previous remarks by Mr. Barzani in 2014 in which he raised the possibility of “confederation.” Last year, another senior Kurdish official suggested a similar solution.

The Kurdish leaders in Erbil have not articulated in detail what a confederal system would look like, but outside analysts and experts have put forward useful proposals. A confederal arrangement could give the Kurds the ability to sell their oil and gas legally without having to go through Baghdad. Erbil and Baghdad could also finally put an end to disputes over territory, such as parts of Kirkuk, Nineveh, Diyala and Salahaddin — provinces that are currently under Kurdish control but claimed by both parties. Residents of those areas could vote in their own referendums: Would they rather join the Kurdish or the Iraqi state in the confederation? Finally, a confederal agreement could give the Kurds a fair share of Iraq’s defense resources and more control over their foreign affairs, something that is now impossible because Kurdish representatives abroad do not have diplomatic status.

This arrangement wouldn’t benefit only the Kurds. Baghdad would secure future Kurdish cooperation in the fight against terrorist groups like the Islamic State or its future iterations. Confederalism would also guarantee Iraq land access to Europe via Kurdistan and crucial water resources that flow from the Kurdish region into other parts of Iraq. The American government also has a vested interest in encouraging this: It would ensure peace between two of its main Middle East allies. Closer cooperation between staunchly pro-American Kurds and pro-American politicians in Baghdad, like Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, would also help counter the influence of Iran and its armed proxies.

If the United States is serious about opposing Kurdish statehood, then instead of calling for the referendum’s postponement, it could work with Baghdad and Erbil to set up a confederal Iraq. This may require rewriting the country’s constitution or undertaking other challenging measures to address energy, territory and security guarantees for both sides, in particular the Kurds, who have legitimate long-term security grievances.

But if there is will and diplomatic pressure, it is surely possible. Short of this, the referendum will set in motion Kurdish independence. And even if those fears are overblown, that’s something that few outside of Erbil want to see become a reality.

Mohammed A. Salih is a Kurdish journalist.

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