Iraqi Kurdistan after its 2017 Independence Referendum

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Ferdinand Hennerbichler

Dr. Ferdinand Hennerbichler is an Austrian historian, philologist, anthropologist, and distinguished Kurdologist. He is also a former diplomat and journalist. He has published many books in English and German about the Kurds, including the “Future of the Kurds.”

The Iraqi Kurdistan independence referendum on September, 25, 2017, initiated by Masoud Barzani, former elected President of the Kurdistan Region Iraq (KRI) [in office June, 13, 2005, to August, 19, 2015] was not intended as the basis for a declaration of an independent Kurdish state in Northern Iraq in the foreseeable future.

It was, rather, aimed at strengthening his own domestic political position as well as that of other leading politicians of the Barzani family and of the Kurdistan Democratic Party Iraq, currently leading the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG).

The referendum aggravated the persisting constitutional crisis in Iraq since 2005 over as-yet unresolved crucial questions, above all regarding the status of Kirkuk and other "disputed territories". The Iraqi Kurds lost to a great extent their influence over Kirkuk and about 40% of other "disputed territories" they were controlling before.

On the regional domestic front, it polarized antagonisms among rivalling Kurdish parties, threatened to split the KRI again into two separate administrations, and also deepened the ongoing severe economic KRG crisis.

In geostrategic terms, it enabled the Islamic Republic of Iran to further extend its influence on Iraq and beyond effectively towards the eastern Mediterranean via pro-Iranian Shia-proxy-militias and, last but not least, it also intensified various crises in the Middle East and Eurasia.

Iraqi Kurds are now deeply insecure, divided between haves and have-nots, their society estranged and fragmented, consigned to a "twilight", "divided future?".

They are victims of shock, frustration, and disappointment of being let down again by the rest of the world. They also blame each other for dangerous miscalculations and acts of treason. Once again, there are protests and riots by unyielding young activists demanding democracy and social justice.
In 2011, young people were getting killed. There are urgent warnings of a new civil war. Hope is fading for the vision of an independent Kurdistan. Fears are growing about escalating tensions, division, and recent armed conflicts. 

The Independence referendum of September 25, 2017, initiated by Masoud Barzani, triggered aftershocks in the entire Middle East.
The Iraqi Kurds themselves lost almost 40% of the territory they held in northern Iraq before the referendum. They were de facto partly thrown back to where they had started in the early1990s, a good quarter of a century earlier: limited federal, regional autonomy, and freedom.

Iran managed not only to control large parts of Iraq via Shia proxy militias but, for the first time to establish a direct land bridge across Syria and Lebanon to Israel and towards the eastern Mediterranean. Unbridgeable differences between leading Iraqi Kurdish parties threaten to divide the Kurdistan Region again in two. 

This time, under Iran's influence, the governorates of Halabja and Sulaimaniyah and parts of Kirkuk and other "disputed territories" could be formed into a second Kurdistan region.

This would mean a renewed partition of Iraqi Kurdistan into a northern autonomous region under the leadership of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan (KDP) and with dominant Turkish influence, and a southern part under the control of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), the Reform Party "Gorran" ("Change"), Barham Salih's new "Coalition for Democracy and Justice" set up in 2017, as well as smaller parties dominated by the Islamic Republic of Iran.

If this comes about, there would be unpredictable consequences. All the grave problems that brought about this development, including dangerously unresolved issues relating to the 2005 Iraqi constitution, would remain as explosive as before.

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