To Hawbash Muradi, it was not shocking that nearly 93 percent of Iraqi Kurds voted “yes” in an independence referendum held on Sept. 25.
“I was expecting something near that. Even the people who were somewhat against the referendum due to internal political reasons said yes when it was time to vote. This is something beyond politics for us,” said Muradi, a Kurdish manager in a Taiwanese high-tech firm who also voted yes.
This was not the first independence vote held in the Kurdistan region. In January 2005, an unofficial referendum organized by the Kurdistan Referendum Movement asked Kurds if they favored forming an independent state. An overwhelming 98.98 percent voted yes.
This time, the referendum was conducted by the Kurdistan Regional Government to begin the process of building an independent state, Muradi said.
The final result delivered by the regional government’s election commission on Sept. 27 showed 92.73 percent in favor of establishing an independent state, but the results were viewed by the Iraqi government as illegal and non-binding.
Apart from Iraq, the referendum also drew opposition from neighbors Turkey, Syria and Iran, as well as Qatar.
The US Department of State on Sept. 20 had issued a statement opposing the planned referendum, saying it has “negatively affected ‘Defeat ISIS’ coordination to dislodge ISIS from its remaining areas of control in Iraq.” ISIS is an old acronym for the Islamic State (IS) group.
Israel was the only Middle Eastern nation to openly support Iraqi Kurdish independence.
Regarding criticism about the timing of the referendum, Muradi said there was no good time to hold it.
“We would have faced the same opposition and rejection even if we held the referendum at a later date. [Other countries’] excuse for not holding it now is that the fight against ISIS is not over, but the actual reason is that Turkey, Iran and Iraq can’t accept a Kurdish state,” he said.
Although the majority of people in the region voted yes, there remain obstacles to overcome before it can achieve true independence, Muradi said, adding that the first would be internal political divisions.
“Some political parties were not for the independence referendum this time. They said this was not the right time to do it, because the region needs to stabilize and improve its economy after the war against [IS],” he said.
International pressure is another obstacle, particularly from Turkey and Iran, Muradi said, adding that both nations view an independent Kurdistan as a national security threat.
Meanwhile, the regional government would need to negotiate with the Iraqi government, which would be a challenging process, he said.
Before the vote, Baghdad had agreed to a list of the regional government’s demands in exchange for postponing the referendum, Muradi said, but added that Kurds know that the Iraqis are just going to “break their promises” like before.
Nevertheless, Muradi was confident about the future of an independent Kurdistan.
“Look at Kosovo, which also held a referendum and became a free state. People said that they were not going to succeed and they were recognized by 115 countries, including the EU,” he said.
The Kurds are moderate Sunni Muslims with their own language and traditions, and with 35 million to 40 million people, they are the world’s largest ethnic population without a nation. Besides Iraqi Kurdistan, most Kurds live in Iran, Syria and Turkey.
The Lausanne Treaty of 1923 attempted to create a Kurdish state, but failed.
Since then, the group has often been discriminated against or targeted, the most notable example being Iraq’s chemical strike on the Kurdish region in March 1988, which killed about 6,800 people.
The attack led to the creation of a no-fly zone over northern Iraq in 1991.
Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga military forces are credited with leading the fight against the IS group.
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