Five million voters go to the polls in the autonomous region of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq on 25th September to decide whether or not to seek independence from Iraq. A group of more than 50 Kurdish organisations in Europe were at the Brussels Press Club last week to support their campaign for an independent state to give a permanent homeland to the Kurdish people.
Kurdistan has been an autonomous region of Iraq since 1970 under the constitution of Iraq, and is located between Syria to the West, Turkey to the north, Iran to the East and the rest of Iraq to the south. It is an oil rich economy, and fossil fuels make up most of its exports.
Kurdistan has 14 representative missions outside the country, including Russia, the United Kingdom, the European Union and the USA. I spoke with the Head of Mission for Kurdistan in Brussels, Mr Delavar Ajgeiy about the forthcoming referendum which will be held shortly before a similarly controversial regional plebiscite on independence in Catalonia scheduled for 1 October.
The result of the Kurdistan referendum is likely to be published in early October, and it is widely expected to deliver a verdict that overwhelmingly supports the creation of an independent state of Kurdistan.
The electorate has suffered a turbulent history since Iraq was established after the First World War, with particularly brutal and notorious oppression under former President Saddam Hussein, and more recently with the violent occupation of key cities by IS forces who have been guilty of the most terrible atrocities against the civilian population.
The Kurdish people have been campaigning for changes to the Iraqi election law preparing the ground for the 2018 national elections in Iraq, better representation for Kurdistan, and a stronger say in the allocation of federal budget to Kurdistan. They feel particularly aggrieved that Baghdad has been starving Kurdistan of budget finance, citing as an example the huge contribution Kurdistan has made to medical services, without any financial assistance from the central Iraqi government.
Mr Ajgeiy explained that the referendum would be supervised by an independent election committee, and that a number of observers had been invited from the EU to witness proceedings, including some Members of the European Parliament who have an informal friendship group with Kurdistan that is chaired by the British Conservative MEP Charles Tannock.
“If, as expected, the result backs independence and the Kurdish people are fully aware of the risks and challenges that this will present, I personally shall be one of the first to support it”.
British Conservative MEP Charles Tannock
The European Parliament also has a delegation for Iraq chaired by the British Conservative MEP David Campbell Bannerman that takes an active interest in Kurdistan affairs.
“We are organising the referendum in a peaceful and democratic way, in observance of EU values, and we look to the EU for support of our efforts to achieve self-determination,” said Mr Ajgeiy. “We believe in dialogue and we will not use violence. This is a local question that needs to be decided between the Iraqis and the Kurds.”
“Kurdistan is in favour of stability in the region, and it is important to recognise our achievements here. Not only have the 150 000 strong Kurdish fighters in our army played a well documented and courageous part alongside the Iraqi Army to defeat IS, but also as a nation we have helped to look after more than 1.8 million refugees inside Kurdistan from many different surrounding regions who might otherwise have caused a crisis of migration if these internally displaced people (IDPs) had sought refuge in the EU. We are a strong partner for the EU, and a force for improving security.”
Commenting on Mr Ajgeiy’s remarks, senior European Parliamentarian and foreign policy expert Charles Tannock MEP said, “I believe that the Kurds have a strong case for statehood in Iraq, and that the international community should contemplate carefully the result of the September 25th referendum. An independent Kurdistan could act as homeland for the large Kurdish diaspora throughout the world and in neighbouring countries, in much the same was as we see with Armenia and Israel.”