The following article was originally published in the Washington Times.
Iraqi security forces with the support of coalition forces are finally getting close to defeating ISIS in Iraq, which begs an important question: What comes next? More to the point, what governmental structure would best protect the many ethnic groups that live there?
Part of the answer will be provided this year by a referendum scheduled for Sept. 25. The Kurdistan Region will ask its people if they support Kurdistan’s independence. We expect that the answer will be overwhelmingly “yes.” President Masoud Barzani has also made it clear that the referendum will include areas that have long been disputed between Baghdad and Irbil, giving people in those territories an opportunity to decide their own future as well.
Iraqis, like the Kurds who have suffered under regimes that failed to protect its citizens from persecution and, in some cases, violence, should be given their say about what form of government provides them the best security. Self-governance is clearly the right answer.
To be sure, the referendum won’t be the end of the story. Other actions would need to be taken before Iraqi Kurdistan can declare sovereignty. Negotiations are required between Baghdad and the Kurdistan. In those talks, the United States will play the critical role of an honest broker. America can ensure that the negotiations are fair, productive and deliver the best possible outcome for both sides.
A stable Iraq is in everyone’s best interest. An independent Kurdistan would share hundreds of miles of border with Iraq, and our economic ties are deep. Iraq would be one of Kurdistan’s most important trading partners, and no one outside of Iraq would have a greater incentive for peace and stability in the country.
The challenges of achieving independence for any country are great but not insurmountable. Negotiating an amicable divorce with Baghdad will be difficult, but there are no cardinal rules against it and many successful examples of peaceful secessions.
For decades, Iraqis have seen cycles of genocide. Under Saddam Hussein’s fascist state, Kurds, Shia and others suffered decades of terror, oppression and numerous attacks on civilians with the most deadly chemical weapons.
In Kurdistan in the 1980s, the state conducted a dedicated, sustained campaign to break the back of our economy, destroy our way of life and, ultimately, exterminate our people. The Baathists called the campaign “Anfal,” a Koranic term for the “spoils of war.”
The departure of Saddam did not end of the suffering. Militias and criminal gangs kidnapped wealthy elites, assassinated academics, and ethnically cleansed areas with impunity. In 2014 the Yazidis, Christians and others again suffered genocide, this time at the hands of ISIS. Our economy has suffered both from the war against ISIS and the humanitarian crisis, but also from Baghdad cutting off our share of the federal budget.
When Iraq’s constitution was drafted in 2005, we in Kurdistan envisioned a federal system that could have led Iraq to realize its potential for prosperity for all Iraqis. Kurdistanis voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Iraqi constitution on that basis. But over the past 12 years, leaders in Baghdad have centralized power. Our initiatives to develop our region, particularly in growing an oil and gas industry from scratch, were treated as liabilities rather than assets. Despite our worries about the direction of the country, our friends in America and the West encouraged us to remain part of the country and participate in government, which we did.
But now it is time for the people of Kurdistan to determine their future, knowing all that has happened in the past century since Iraq was created and all that has passed since 2005.
Like the United States, we have invested blood, time, energy and treasure to make Iraq work. Now it’s time for Iraq and Kurdistan to be good neighbors with good fences rather than be under one roof and a thorn in each other’s side. The United States can play a pivotal role in that effort.
Falah Mustafa Bakir is the head of the Department of Foreign Relations of the Kurdistan Regional Government.