The following article was originally published in Foreign Policy.
Iraqi Kurds have finally set a date for their long-discussed referendum on independence from the rest of Iraq, with the Kurdistan Regional Government calling for a vote on Sept. 25.
The decision, announced by KRG president Masoud Barzani on Twitter, and picked up by local and international media, is sure to spark a showdown with Baghdad, which has for years sought to keep the restive Kurds inside a barely functioning Iraqi state. Tensions between the capital and the oil-rich northern region have grown in the wake of the 2014 offensive by the Islamic State, in which Mosul — Iraq’s second-largest city — fell and where only the intervention of Kurdish peshmerga fighters saved Kirkuk, home to some of Iraq’s richest oil fields.
Kurdish officials said voting, on the straightforward question of “do you want an independent Kurdistan?,” would take place in regions including three claimed by Baghdad and the fiercely disputed territory of Kirkuk.
“We see it as an opportunity and we do not want to miss it,” said an official at the KRG delegation in Washington. The referendum, Kurdish officials insist, will be binding. “We are legally capable of holding the referendum without consulting Baghdad,” the KRG official said.
Kurdish officials had told Reuters this spring that any referendum — which has been mooted for years — would be legally non-binding, and would mostly serve to strengthen Erbil’s hand when it comes to direct talks with Baghdad on greater autonomy or a path to eventual independence.
An Iraqi government source told Foreign Policy that what was concerning was that the Kurds intend to have the referendum extend to Kirkuk, Makhmour, Shingal, and Khanaqin — all of which are disputed under the constitution.
In April, Ammar al-Hakim, president of Iraq’s ruling coalition, warned the Kurds in particular about trying to separate Kirkuk, home to big oil deposits, from Iraq. The city has long been a fault line between Arabs and Kurds inside Iraq, and became a target of opportunity during the chaos of the Islamic State onslaught three years ago.
Tensions between the Kurdish-speaking north and the Arab center and south of Iraq predate the creation of the country after World War I, when it was cobbled together from disparate Ottoman provinces. But the ouster of Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein in 2003 cracked Baghdad’s stranglehold on the country — he’d used gas to suppress Kurds shortly after the 1991 war with the United States — and Kurdish aspirations for independence picked up steam.
Beyond cultural and linguistic disaffections, money has been a sore spot between Erbil and Baghdad. Under the Iraqi constitution, the Kurdish region is meant to receive a proportional amount — roughly 17 percent — of federal proceeds from oil exports. But Kurdish officials for years said Baghdad shortchanged the region.
That’s why starting in 2014, Erbil began directly exporting crude oil itself. Despite being landlocked, which meant initially shipping oil out by truck, Iraqi Kurdistan struck a deal with Turkey to pipe crude oil to an export terminal on the Mediterranean coast. For the first time, that gave the KRG access to global oil markets and a way to ease its own budget shortfalls, though legal uncertainties over just who owned the stuff still plagued the marketing of crude oil.
Though Baghdad and Erbil tried to make peace over the oil exports, tensions persisted, with mysterious explosions shuttering Kurdish pipelines and crimping its finances last year.
This article was originally published in Foreign Policy.