Analysis

What drives Barzani to call for independence referendum?

(AhlulBayt News Agency) - What makes the Kurdish political parties achieve unified voice on a referendum that can grant them an independent state from Baghdad?

During his meeting with the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on March 30, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan regional government Masoud Barzani reiterated his intention to hold referendum to let people decide on the independence of the Kurdish region. The Kurdish officials said that Barzani’s referendum-related comments come as part of his aim to inform the international community of the 2017 referendum and also prepare the public opinion for the steps Erbil is about to take on the case.

On March 3 a joint meeting was between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which leads the government in the Kurdish region, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (YNK) to negotiate the independence referendum in the Kurdish region. The two sides in their statement that followed the session underscored the need to hold independence poll in the near future and after finishing the discussions with other political sides of the autonomous Kurdish region.

As part of preplanned debates with other parties a joint committee comprising elements from the KDP and the YNK met on March 4 with other major parties of the region including the Kurdistan Islamic Union and the Kurdistan Islamic Group in a bid to reach final accords on the poll.

After 2003, Masoud Barzani has repeatedly insisted on the necessity of Kurdistan's independence. The issue received a special and serious focus from the Kurdish leaders particularly after rise of ISIS terrorist group across Iraq. But it seems that the Kurdish political sides have never been so united as they are now on holding the independence vote.

the question that rises here is what makes the Kurdish political parties achieve unified voice on a referendum that can grant them an independent state from Baghdad? Well, two issues appear to be of significance when it comes to answering the question, both of which are related to the Kurds' demands and measures:

1. Raising Kurdistan’s flag in Kirkuk and sparking dispute with Baghdad over it

In a surprise move nearly three weeks ago, and apparently in defiance of the central Iraqi government in Baghdad, the governor of Kirkuk Najmiddin Karim, who at the same time is the member of YNK’s board of leadership, ordered the Kurdish flag to be flown on top of the state organizations' buildings across the disputed city. The Arab and Turkmen members of the provincial council in Kirkuk have opposed the measure and even boycotted the meeting that intended to perform final vote on whether or not it should raise the Kurdish flag beside the national Iraqi flag. The council, which is dominated by the Kurdish parties, voted in favor of flag raising on March 27. So all state buildings in the city got a Kurdish flag flying just beside Iraq’s flag.

As an act of retaliation to the Kurdish-dominated provincial council, Baghdad government said that it will pay only intermittently the salaries of the state employees in Kirkuk from now on. The government's reaction was followed by that of the parliament which in its April 1 session announced that raising the Kurdish flag beside the national Iraqi flag on state organizations was illegal constitutionally, calling for the flag to be taken down. The parliament also decided that the Kurds will no longer be offered the right to sell oil from Kirkuk oilfields, though the decision received harsh opposition from the Kurdish lawmakers who engaged in tough verbal clash with the parliament’s speaker Salim al-Jabouri and abandoned the meeting of Council of Representatives, the official name for the parliament.

Reacting to the anti-Kurdish measures of the parliament, Karim on April 2 has dismissed the lawmakers' order as illegal, and the Kirkuk Provincial Council said that it will not bow to the flag-related parliamentary bill. Coming to support the council’s insistence on its stances, Barzani said that the Kurdistan flags will not be removed from the official buildings.

These events produced unprecedented unity between the rival KDP and YNK, pushing them to hold their first joint meeting on March 3 to schedule for the expected referendum. The analysts suggest that the new flag dispute with Baghdad has provided Erbil with significantly indispensable push to move toward holding the statehood referendum.

2. Kurdish demands for bigger share in future Iraq

Aside from the flag dispute which is the extension of the Erbil-Baghdad contest over the oil-rich Kirkuk, concentration on the Iraqi political scene's realities lets us understand that establishing serious efforts for independence of Kurdistan by the Kurdish leaders comes as an attempt to wrest further concessions from Baghdad leaders. While the ISIS is breathing its last in Iraq as a result of the strong campaign launched by a body of Iraqi forces, the Kurds are going to great lengths to exploit the Iraqi government’s weakness and power vacuum in northern Iraq.

This comes while a majority of Kurdistan’s politicians are aware of the fact that independence announcement will see many roadblocks ahead. Many of them insist that referendum does not mean direct independence and split from Iraq, rather it will be a symbolic step by Erbil. Hoshyar Zebari, the former finance minister of Iraq and one of KDP leaders, in interview with Kurdistan 24 news agency on April 3 maintained that holding referendum “does not mean declaring independence”, and that the Kurds know it well that they have to prepare the ground before making any announcement on an independent Kurdish state. The analysts note that these comments make it clear that the Kurdish leaders' intention behind referendum is apparently securing further privileges from a post-ISIS Baghdad government rather than seeking statehood in the current conditions.




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