Reporting on the Kurdistan independence referendum by Seth J. Frantzman


On September 25 millions of residents of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq turned out to vote in an independence referendum. It had been months in planning but decades in the making. I’ve been writing about and visiting Kurdistan for more than two years. During the referendum I briefly went down to the area around Kirkuk to meeting with Peshmerga commanders and discuss the security situation, and then followed the voting from Erbil. This included attending the September 24th press conference of KRG President Masoud Barzani and the day-of press conference of Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. Below is a list of articles about the lead up to the referendum and its aftermath.

2016: The year Kurdistan finally breaks from Iraq,’ The National Interest February 2016

The last time Kurdistan had a referendum for independence was in 2005, when 1.9 million Kurds voted in Iraqi national and KRG regional elections. 98 percent of those casting ballots said yes to independence. In 2014, Barzani told the BBC he wanted to hold a referendum. The Kurdish parliament was supposed to set a date for the decision. Then Kurdistan was attacked by Islamic State on August 3, 2014.

The article includes an interview with  Sero Qadir of the Institute for Research and Development in Kurdistan.

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Kurdistan region sets independence referendum,’ The Jerusalem Post, June 9, 2017

On Wednesday June 7, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government Masoud Barzani, tweeted, “I am pleased to announce that the date for the independence referendum has been set for Monday, September 25.” Barzani received support across Kurdistan’s political spectrum. A Kurdish Islamic Party statement read, “Referendum and independence are an inalienable and natural right.” Kirkuk Gov. Najmaldin Karim, a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and outspoken advocate of independence for many years, said his city would support it. Kirkuk is one of the “disputed” areas between the official Kurdish region and Baghdad. In the recent war with ISIS, Kurds defended Kirkuk and today it is firmly in the hands of the KRG.

This article included an interview with Israeli MK Ksenia Svetlova

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The long road to the referendum (Seth J. Frantzman)

Will the Kurds get their independence referendum,‘ The National Interest, July 27, 2017

“The time has come for our own people to determine their future,” Falah Mustafa Bakir, the head of the department of foreign relations for the KRG, said in an interview. Fourteen years after the U.S.-led 2003 invasion and the problems between Baghdad and the Kurds have not been resolved by decentralization, autonomy and federalism, he said. “To have a democratic environment we need democratic practice and democratic culture,” Bakir said. The Iraqi government has breached the constitution, not distributed the federal budget correctly, and a referendum will bring about “stability and security.” It will also be a mandate for the Kurdish leadership to negotiate with Baghdad, Bakir said. “We can be good partners as two good neighbors,” he said. “This is a turning point in our history.”

For the rest of the article see this link

For Iraq’s Kurds Independence looks tantalizingly close,‘ The Spectator August 6, 2017

The champions of Brexit are lukewarm in their support for the Kurdish cause. Boris Johnson said that Brexit was ‘about the right of the people of this country to settle their own destiny’. He was somewhat colder on the issue of Kurdish independence. In his role as Foreign Secretary, he said that the move towards Kurdish independence must be undertaken only with the Iraqi government’s consent. Boris went on to warn that ‘unilateral moves towards Kurdish independence would not be in the interests of the people of the Kurdistan Region, Iraq or of wider regional stability’. Clearly, it seems, the right to self-determination only goes so far.

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Kurds vow to move on independence referendum despite pressure to delay,’ The Jerusalem Post, August 22, 2017

In each case the Kurds demand that if they agree to postpone their right to a vote, the region receive something major in return. Kurdistan24 reported on Sunday that Mala Bakhtiar, executive secretary of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a leading political party in the KRG, said the Iraqi central government should “assist the Kurds in overcoming a financial crises,” among other issues. According to other reports, the discussions in Baghdad centered around other guarantees relating to the Kurdish region’s oil and who will rule over disputed areas in Kirkuk, Sinjar and Khanaqin. Ceng Sagnic, coordinator of the Kurdish Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University says the last weeks reveal tremendous pressure on Erbil. “These are all adding up to an image that the KRG is under heavy pressure to delay the referendum because there are rumors the US government is concerned that the referendum [taking place] before the Iraqi general elections will empower Iran’s role in Iraq.”

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‘In pictures: Kurds are flying Israel flags at independence rallies,‘ The Jerusalem Post, September 17, 2017

Israel flags appeared frequently among the sea of Kurdish flags at pro-independence rallies across Europe and in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. In Cologne in late August and then Geneva and Oslo, Israel flags were waved proudly by attendees. On September 16 the blue and white appeared at rallies in Brussels, Hamburg and Stockholm. The unprecedented embrace of the Israeli flag comes amidst Israel’s support for Kurdish rights and historic connections between the two nations.

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Why the US chose to oppose the Kurdish referendum,’ The Jerusalem Post, September 19, 2017

A person familiar with the administration’s view explained that Trump’s team had already set priorities for national security crises, and those involved Iran, North Korea and Russia. They preferred that Kurdish issues be put off until after the upcoming Iraqi elections. They feared that moves by Kurdistan could distract from efforts to roll back Iranian influence in Iraq and unite Sunni and Shi’a Arabs against Kurds. They didn’t reject the referendum but suggested postponing it. The problem is that Barzani had heard that before, in 2008, from US ambassador Ryan Crocker and other US officials, who always suggested more dialogue.

For the rest of the article see this link


Fazil Mirani after voting (Seth J. Frantzman)

The Kurdish spring, the long journey to self-determination,’ The Jerusalem Post, September 22, 2017

Divided for 100 years between Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria after the decline of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, Kurds have reached an unprecedented level of autonomy in recent years, and there is a sense that this is a unique period in history. But it comes with tremendous pressure from foreign governments that claim that too much Kurdish independence can add instability to a region that is already unstable.

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Momentum for independence growing on eve of vote,’ The Jerusalem Post, September 24, 2017

Some Kurds say this moment is their 1948 – a reference to Israel’s declaration of independence. They see the challenges Israel faced in its early years as similar to the problems their region now faces. Iran, Turkey, the Iraqi government in Baghdad, the US, UK, the UN and many other countries have pressured the Kurdish leadership to cancel or postpone the vote. Even up to the eleventh hour the pressure continues, with the UN Security Council expressing concern about the vote and US presidential envoy for the coalition to counter the Islamic State Brett McGurk encouraging Barzani to reconsider.
“There is no Iraq, it is a militia state,” says Hussein Yazdanpanah, a leader of the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK), who serves a front line commander northwest of Kirkuk.

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Kurdistan President: Kurdish people to decide their future,‘ The Jerusalem Post, September 25, 2017

“What we have done is ask people to express their votes in a most democratic way,’ Masoud Barzani said on the eve of the referendum. “We had a lot of hope in this new Iraq that this would be a new opportunity of federalism, pluralism and democracy and we can live together in coexistence.” Barzani added, however, that Baghdad violated the 2005 constitution of Iraq, depriving the Kurdish region of its budget and violating power-sharing agreements. “They galvanized populism in the south and middle of Iraq,” he noted, describing threats and hatred that politicians had used against Kurds.

For the rest of the article see this link

Turnout high as Kurds go to polls,’ The Jerusalem Post, September 25, 2017

On Iskan street, the pulse of the city seemed like it would stretch towards the morning. The smell of grilled meat wandered through the air. A teenager in one SUV waved an Israeli flag, which has become common in the Kurdish region at rallies, as Israel is the only country to openly support Kurdish independence aspirations.

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Determined Kurds elated to hold independence vote,’ The Washington Times, September 25, 2017

“Genocide and chemical weapons were used against us, and now they are using a kind of chemical weapon again in the form of threat of economic sanctions,” said Mr. Omar. He hoped a strong vote for independence would send a signal to the international community about the depth of feeling and avoid a replay of the 1970s and 1980s abandonment of Kurds, whose homeland straddles the boundaries of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.

For the rest of the article see this link

You call for democracy but don’t support it, Kurds lash out at West’s response,‘ The Jerusalem Post, September 26, 2017

On Monday, Abdul Karim, a civil servant, went with his wife and daughter to Erbil’s historic citadel after voting in the historic independence referendum. He was affable and enthusiastic about the chance to vote for independence. But he had one question. “America calls for democracy, but what are you doing now?”

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High turnout as Kurds for for independence,’ The National Review, September 26, 2017

The day after the Kurdish independence referendum, people have left the ink they used to stamp their ballots to dry on their fingers. It is a symbol of their desire for independence. Many have waited their whole lives for this moment. Although there was a referendum in 2005 alongside parliamentary elections, this one was held independent of elections, and Kurds in northern Iraq hope it will lead to independence.

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Kurdistan defies threats to hold referendum,‘ The Spectator, September 26, 2017

The Machko teahouse in the centre of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, has seen much of the area’s history. Founded in 1940, it survived Saddam Hussein’s oppression and years of privation. On September 25th, it was packed with patrons gathering to watch the latest chapter in the Kurdish region’s long history unfold.

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Baghdad threatens to send troops to Kirkuk after referendum,’ The Jerusalem Post, September 28, 2017

“We saw how the Iraqi Army left Kirkuk to ISIS in 2014 without firing a bullet,” a senior Peshmerga officer told reporters on the eve of the referendum. Now the message from the Peshmerga is that the city is part of the Kurdistan Regional Government and will stay that way.

For the rest of the article see this link

Why some countries see Kurdistan’s battle for independence as a threat,’ The National Interest, October 3, 2017

Government minister Falah Mustafa Bakir, the head of the Kurdistan Regional Government Department of Foreign Relations, has sought to emphasize that the referendum is a legitimate and peaceful vote for self-determination. “I call upon and urge the international community to respect the will of the people of Kurdistan, which wants to be free and has suffered a painful past.” In an interview at his office the day after the referendum he stressed that the Kurdish region is not a threat to its neighbors and contributes to stability in the region, as well as the protection of minorities. “We will be patient, we will not be provocative,” he said. “We want de-escalation and we hope they [foreign countries and Baghdad] will see that and see us as a partner.”

For the rest of the article see this link


Falah Mustafa (Seth J. Frantzman)

Minister defends Kurds’ vote for independence,’ The Washington Times, September 27, 2017

Falah Mustafa: Today is a new era, and we are proud of democratic process and [that it] ended peacefully. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience that happened where people go to ballot boxes and vote for independence. People did want to be part of history and people exercised [their] human and democratic right peacefully, and that was the right to self-determination. I urge the international community to respect the will of [the] people of Kurdistan who want to be free and suffered a painful past and are a nation of victims of genocide and chemical gassing. We did not ask for the impossible and didn’t commit a crime or violate any rules; [the referendum] is in line with the U.N. Charter, and that right to self-determination is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

For the rest of the article see this link

Interview with Seth J. Frantzman: Why Israel supports an independent Kurdistan, CNN, October 2, 2017

Frantzman sees that good relationship translating into tangible benefits with the creation of a Kurdish state. “Israel would welcome another state in the region that shares its concerns about the rising power of Iran, including the threat of Iranian-backed Shia militias in Iraq,” says Frantzman. “Reports have also indicated that oil from Kurdistan is purchased by Israel.”

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How Baghdad is punishing the Kurds post-referendum,‘ The Jerusalem Post, October 4, 2017

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has tried to balance threats with action in the wake of the September 25 referendum that saw 93% of voters in the Kurdish region support independence. “The Kurdistan Region has to cancel the result of the unconstitutional referendum and then engage in serious dialogue,” he said on October 2. Abadi has not been discouraged by the US State Department’s call for calm.

For the rest of the article see this link


PDKI Peshmerga

Post-referendum, Iran’s Kurds demand rights,’ The Jerusalem Post, September 30, 2017

“Iran has massed troops and paramilitary and security in Kurdish cities,” PDKI’s leader Mustafa Hijri says. Iranian intelligence is keeping a close eye on any dissent. Kurds celebrated the New Year, called Newroz, raucously in March. The KDPI leader says its deployment of Peshmerga to support resistance is paying off. “Aside from civil resistance we witnessed assassination and killing of Iranian intelligence agents.” The Kurds accuse Iranian intelligence of dealing drugs as part of a campaign to weaken the population. “Our strategy has been launched based on 38 years of resistance against the regime… the ultimate goal is for the struggle to coalesce into a popular uprising,” he said.

For the rest of the article see this link

‘Post-referendum: Iraq takes Hawija,’ The Jerusalem Post, October 1, 2017

The US-led coalition is advising and assisting the Iraqis in their advance, letting the Iraqis lead the way. One of the US officers playing a key role in advising the Hawija offensive is Col. Charles D. Costanza, who is on his fourth tour in Iraq. He arrived at the end of the offensive to retake Mosul from ISIS and advised the Iraqis during the operation to take Tal Afar as commanding officer for the Combined Joint Operations Center in Erbil. He also commands the target engagement authority and is the 1st armored division’s chief of staff.

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‘US medical volunteers give medical training to Peshmerga,‘ The Jerusalem Post, October 3, 2017

With FAI, Dalton Thomas produced Better Friends than Mountains, a documentary about the Kurdish people. What began with aid to local Peshmerga brigades in the region soon developed into what he describes as a “broad-based effort to provide emergency medical care to the Peshmerga all across the front line, conducting ongoing combat casualty-care training and education, and [providing] aid to civilians caught in the war.” An American paramedic who asked that his name be withheld for security reasons has conducted five training sessions for groups of 15 Peshmerga at a time along the front. He comes with a background of 17 years in emergency rescue service.

For the rest of the article see this link

Baghdad threatens Kurds with more sanctions following referendum,’ The Jerusalem Post, October 9, 2017

In many ways the brief unity at the Talabani funeral and the threats uttered by Baghdad after, including the cutting of the live feed by stations, is symbolic of the reality of Iraq today. While Iraqi politicians may mourn Talabani, they shy away from discussing one of his main legacies: The struggle for the province of Kirkuk to be connected to the Kurdish region. Today Baghdad has threatened to try and cut off Kurdish oil exports from Kirkuk, as seek to return the disputed city to central government control.

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One response to “Reporting on the Kurdistan independence referendum by Seth J. Frantzman

  1. While I appreciate your report, a small but essential detail.

    There are no 25 million voters in the KRG. Not even 5 million, or hardly.

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