By Ali Choukeir
Arbil, Iraq (AFP) Sept 19, 2017
Iraqi Kurds may have long dreamed of founding their own state, but the independence referendum set for September 25 has also exposed divisions between their autonomous region's main cities.
In Arbil, capital of the Kurdish Regional Government, the streets are currently teeming with red, white and green Kurdish flags.
Some people have even resprayed their cars with the same colours and altered their registration plates to read "Kurdistan" instead of "Iraq".
Most of the million or so residents of the city, a stronghold of Kurdish leader Massud Barzani who initiated the poll, back the independence drive.
Many even say the vote should have been held years ago, given that the region has been de facto autonomous since 1991.
But 150 kilometres (90 miles) to the southeast in Sulaimaniyah, a bastion of opposition to Barzani, there is little enthusiasm for the vote despite broad support for independence itself.
"Why hold a referendum when the foundation to build a state doesn't exist?" asked teacher Rizkar Abdel Qader, 46.
"Our officials would do better to improve the quality of life for people before calling for the creation of a state."
Hoshyar Zebari, a Barzani ally and former foreign minister of Iraq, said the poll "supports the desire of the Kurdish people to decide their future" and that postponing it would be "political suicide".
Arbil is keen to use the referendum to exert pressure on Baghdad into making concessions on oil exports and disputed territories.
"Independence is an imperative, but that doesn't mean the state will be proclaimed" the day after the vote, Zebari said.
"It will have to be built while negotiations with Baghdad continue."
The planned referendum has angered the Kurds' international allies and the central government in Baghdad, which sees it as violating the constitution.
Last week, the federal parliament voted against the referendum in a bid to "protect the unity of Iraq", prompting a protest walk-out by Kurdish lawmakers.
- Effectively autonomous since 1991 -
And on Monday, Iraq's supreme court ordered a suspension of the referendum until it can examine complaints that the plebiscite is unconstitutional.
Abdel Hakim Khasro, a professor of political science at Arbil's Salahaddin University, believes there are no legal or constitutional obstacles to holding the ballot.
After all, supporters of the referendum argue, the oil-rich northern region has been effectively autonomous since the 1991 Gulf War, with its own institutions, budget and parliament.
But in Sulaimaniyah, which has a history of opposing Arbil's authority, many people are upset that the referendum is being held at all.
"This was decided by one party," said Shoresh Haji of the opposition Goran movement, referring to Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).
"A state is not born from an announcement but must be built by putting in place a solid economic infrastructure."
Ismail Galali, a member of a movement that backs a "no" vote, agreed.
"Independence is the right of all peoples, but in my opinion what's happening now is a masquerade that will result in a backward emirate," he said.
Few residents of Arbil want to talk about the possible negative consequences of a "yes" vote, despite warnings from the KRG's powerful neighbour Turkey that the region would pay a price.
Turkish tanks staged military manoeuvres along the border on Monday.
"We are not trying to provoke anyone," 43-year-old Arbil newsagent Sirwan Ahmad told AFP.
"The fact that some Kurds are against holding the referendum is a sign that democracy exists in our region."
Most people in the regional capital openly support the referendum, despite the fact that their enclave is facing an unprecedented economic recession.
"That's no reason to give up on gaining our state," said Berwar Aziz, 23, who sells scarves in a shop near Arbil's UNESCO-listed citadel.
"I will vote 'yes' with all 10 fingers," he said, smiling.
Kurds: one stateless people across four countries
Iraqi Kurdistan, an autonomous region in northern Iraq, is to hold a non-binding independence referendum on September 25 that has stirred concern of separatist aspirations in neighbouring states.
- Mountain people -
The Kurds inhabit mainly mountainous regions that cover almost half a million square kilometres (200,000 square miles), spanning from southeast Turkey through northern Syria and Iraq to central Iran.
They number around 12 to 15 million in Turkey, (about 20 percent of the overall population), six million in Iran (less than 10 percent), 4.7 million in Iraq (15-20 percent), and more than two million in Syria (15 percent).
The Kurds have preserved their culture, dialects and clan-based social structures. Large expatriate communities exist in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Germany and Lebanon.
Although predominantly Sunni Muslims, some are Christians and their political structures are often non-denominational.
- Tense relations with host countries -
Kurdish ambitions of a unified nation are seen as a threat to the main host countries.
- In Turkey, the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) has been labelled a terrorist organisation by the European Union and United States. Over 30 years of fighting with Turkish forces has killed more than 40,000 people.
- In Syria, the US-backed Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) are one of the most effective forces against the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group. They control more than 10 percent of the country in the north and northeast, and three-quarters of the border region with Turkey.
- In Iraq, Kurds are an important US ally, and after having resisted the army of dictator Saddam Hussein for decades, now lead the fight against the IS.
They control roughly 40,600 square kilometres (15,600 square miles) of territory, including many of northern Iraq's oil fields and the cities of Arbil and Kirkuk.
- In Iran, where the army crushed a fledgling Kurdish republic in 1946, the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan (JAK) is pushing for autonomy in three provinces.
- Anti-IS spearhead -
Kurdish peshmerga fighters are considered experienced warriors and Western countries have provided them with air cover, sophisticated weapons and training to combat IS jihadists.
Notable Kurdish victories include the YPG's four-month assault of IS fighters in Kobane on Syria's border with Turkey and peshmerga gains in Iraq.
Turkey has regularly attacked YPG positions in Syria since mid-2015.
- Internal divisions -
The Kurds have never lived under a single, centralised power and are split among a myriad of parties and factions.
While some of these groups straddle borders, others are in conflict with each other because of alliances with the governments where they live.
Iraq's two main Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (PDK) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), were locked in a 1994-1998 conflict that left 3,000 people dead. They reconciled in 2003.
Baghdad (AFP) Sept 16, 2017
The United Nations has urged Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani to drop plans for a controversial independence referendum and enter talks with Baghdad aimed at reaching a deal within three years. Jan Kubis, the top UN envoy in Iraq, offered international backing for immediate negotiations between the country's federal government and the autonomous Kurdish region. In a document he delive ... read more
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