Q&A: How would a divorce between Baghdad and Irbil take shape?

A Kurdish flag hangs in the Irbil International Airport on Wednesday. Iraq's prime minister ordered the country's Kurdish region to hand over control of its airports to federal authorities or face a flight ban.
(Khalid Mohammed / Associated Press)

On Wednesday, Kurdish officials released the official results of a referendum wanted by no one but the Kurds and whose outcome was never in doubt. A crushing majority, some 92% of the 3 million Kurds who voted Monday, want to secede from Iraq to form their own state.

Here’s a look at what the referendum could signify.

First off, who are the Kurds?

The Kurds are an ethnic minority who hail from the mountainous region encompassing parts of what are now Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran. They number anywhere from 28 million to 46 million people, according to estimates from both the Central Intelligence Agency’s Factbook and the Paris-based Kurdish institute.

That makes them the fourth largest ethnic minority group in the region, one with their own culture and language (with several dialects). Yet they have never had a state of their own.

While most follow the Sunni Muslim faith, a small number of Kurds adhere to Shiite Islam, Christianity and other religions.

They came close to achieving their dream of a “Kurdistan,” literally “land of the Kurds,” in the tumultuous period after World War I. In 1920, with the Ottoman Empire defeated, Western powers signed the Treaty of Sevres, which portioned off a section of what is now Turkish territory for a Kurdish homeland.

The agreement, however, was usurped three years later by the Treaty of Lausanne. This time, the Kurds were given nothing. Since then, they have fought bitterly as a restive minority against governments who often viewed them as fifth columnists.

And what about Kurds in Iraq?

It was no different in Iraq, where Kurds are the country’s largest ethnic minority , making up 15% to 20% of the population in 2017. There, Kurdish leaders led successive revolts against Baghdad, even allying themselves for a time with the United States and Iran against Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein. He retaliated with a so-called Arabization drive, targeting scores of non-Arab villages for destruction and deporting their inhabitants, with Arab families encouraged to settle in their stead.

He also launched the Anfal campaign, a brutal, three-year operation that included summary executions, mass disappearances, aerial and ground offensives, and even chemical warfare. Conservative estimates say 50,000 to 100,000 Kurds were killed; others put the figure as high as 182,000.

Anfal culminated in September 1988 in a chemical weapons attack on the Kurdish-dominated city of Halabja that killed thousands of civilians. (The attack earned its commander, Ali Hassan Majid, the moniker “Chemical Ali.”)

After the U.S. invasion in 2003, the new Iraqi Constitution established a semi-autonomous region over the three Kurdish-majority provinces of Irbil, Sulaimaniyah and Dohuk under the authority of the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, in Irbil. Longtime Kurdish nationalist fighter Masoud Barzani was installed as president.

Some territories, including Kirkuk, the oil-rich province that is a perennial tinderbox, remain under dispute between Baghdad and Irbil.

We have a constitution where we are equal, to be treated as first-class citizens, but it never came true.

— Ari Mamshae, a staffer in KRG leader Masoud Barzani's office

So why hold a referendum now?

Many Kurds say they are fed up with Iraq.

“Who wants to be part of this failed state? We agreed to have a federal, stable, democratic country. We don’t see that, we see the opposite. No one would want to be part of this,” Ari Mamshae, a staffer in Barzani’s office who was involved with the referendum campaign, said in a phone interview Wednesday.

“We have a constitution where we are equal, to be treated as first-class citizens, but it never came true.”

Kurds now enjoy unprecedented influence in the country. They played an instrumental role in rolling back Islamic State’s juggernaut gains in 2014, and have become the U.S.-led coalition’s primary ally among the different Iraqi security services.

With Islamic State on the back foot, especially after the loss of its de facto Iraqi capital of Mosul, Kurdish leaders say it’s time to move forward with separation, even while insisting that they will still be a partner against the militants.

They add that, like “Brexit,” independence is a process that will come through negotiation and take place in one or two years.

Virtually all of the international community is unconvinced, leaving the Kurds, as an old Kurdish saying goes, with “no friend but the mountains.”

How easy is it to separate?

Kurdish leaders say there will be no immediate declaration of independence, but the vote gives them a mandate to negotiate a friendly divorce from Baghdad. The question is whether Baghdad is ready to negotiate.

“If the Kurds turned around and said ‘we just want our three provinces’, there would be a lot of sympathetic ears to that in Baghdad. … But because they insist on Kirkuk, — that’s what makes conflict likely,” said Zaid Ali, an Iraq expert and author of the book “The Struggle for Iraq’s Future” who was contacted by phone Wednesday.

It would be messy in social terms. The disputed areas include ethno-religious communities interspersed with Arab tribes. It’s unclear how many would prefer to live in a Kurdish state, and whether Arabs could remain. Kurdish cities have also become a refuge for the multitude of those displaced by Iraq’s seemingly unending series of wars.

Economically, the KRG boasts of stability not found anywhere else in Iraq, with investments that have transformed once dilapidated streets into an ersatz imitation of Dubai’s boulevards.

And of course there’s oil. Oilfields in a Kurdistan that includes disputed areas such as Kirkuk, a perennial tinderbox between Baghdad and Irbil, would grant the KRG production of almost 600,000 barrels per day, according to a 2016 report from the Kurdish Ministry of National Resources. Baghdad, which is already suffering a budget crisis due to low oil revenues, cannot countenance losing these resources.

How have other countries reacted?

The United States said it was “deeply disappointed” with the decision to go forward with the referendum.

“The United States' historic relationship with the people of the Iraqi Kurdistan region will not change in light of today's non-binding referendum, but we believe this step will increase instability and hardships for the Kurdistan region and its people,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement Monday.

Iran and Turkey, who fear a similar bid for statehood by their own Kurdish minorities, say their relationship will change. As the KRG’s main trading partners, they have threatened to establish a de facto embargo by shutting down all commercial traffic and oil pipelines, effectively strangling the Kurdish economy. Turkish forces, meanwhile, are running joint exercises with the Iraqi army on the border between the two countries, in anticipation of any violence.

But if the Iraqi Kurds press ahead with independence, their neighbors might come around to the idea.

“I think Turkey would be at the front of the queue, because Turkey would benefit the most from an independent Kurdistan,” said David L. Phillips, a former State Department advisor who now heads Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights.

The landlocked Iraqi Kurdish region already exports its oil through a pipeline to Turkey and imports many consumer goods from the country.

“Construction contracts, oil transports, energy supplies, sale of Turkish consumer goods and a buffer between Turkey and Shiite Arab Iraq are all assets for Turkey,” Phillips said.

Kurdish populations in neighboring countries have also taken notice. Syrian Kurdish leader Saleh Muslim said in an interview with London-based daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that his forces — Kurdish militiamen who, coincidentally, are the United States’ top ally in Syria — were ready “to stand by the Kurdish people in the Kurdistan region if it is attacked.”

Activists also posted videos of protests held in Turkey and Iran in solidarity with the referendum.

And what about Baghdad?

Iraqi lawmakers, infuriated by Kurdish leaders’ intransigence, authorized Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi on Wednesday to deploy troops to Kirkuk and secure the oil fields, part of a 13-point list of demands that would close off the Kurdish enclave and prosecute its leaders. There would be no negotiations until the referendum was annulled.

Kurdish authorities, meanwhile, were given until Friday to hand over control of their airports and other border crossings — a proposition the Kurdish transportation minister, Mawlood Bawamurad, dismissed out of hand in a press conference Wednesday.

“As a result of this political maneuvering, the rhetoric has escalated, and on Iraqi TV there are loads of military leaders saying stuff like we won’t compromise on a single inch of Iraqi soil,” said Iraq expert Ali.

“It can easily spiral out of control.”

Ramzy Mardini, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council, said in an e-mail Wednesday that Abadi is being forced to escalate his position in order to save face and maintain his political survival.

“We now have two leaders in Baghdad and Irbil that are locked in within their electoral cycles and playing to their audiences in the midst of heightened Arab and Kurdish nationalism,” he wrote.

“It has been a game of chicken, but that game has not ended with the referendum.”

Nevertheless, Abadi insisted on Wednesday in a speech to parliament that there would be no fighting between “Iraqi brothers.”

“We will impose the rule of Iraq in all areas of [the Kurdish region] by the force of the constitution,” he said. “Kurdish citizens are Iraqis and they will remain so.”

Bulos is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Alexandra Zavis in Beirut contributed to this report.

Twitter: @nabihbulos


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