What’s Happening In Iraq Right Now Could Change The Middle East Forever

An upcoming referendum on Kurdish independence has implications for Turkey, Syria and Iran.
An Iraqi man prints a flag of Kurdistan. 
An Iraqi man prints a flag of Kurdistan. 

KIRKUK, Iraq ― “Kirkuk kurdistane, Peșmergê nâv dane,” the loudspeakers blare. “Kirkuk is Kurdistan, the Peshmerga have arrived.”

We get stopped by fighters of the Peshmerga, the military of the autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq, at a security checkpoint in the north of Kirkuk. The thermometer in the car shows it’s about 118 degrees Fahrenheit this afternoon. The fighters carry AK-47 machine guns and politely ask for our IDs. Indeed, in Kirkuk, Kurdish flags are flying. 

Kirkuk is about an hour’s drive away from Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish self-governed area in northern Iraq. The city has not always been Kurdish and officially, it still isn’t today. The fight over its future exemplifies the turbulent changes the Kurdish region went through while battling the self-described Islamic State. Those changes could affect not only Iraq, but the entire Middle East, possibly leaving more conflict in its wake. 

Iraqi Kurdish security forces patrol a street in the city of Kirkuk, Iraq. 
Iraqi Kurdish security forces patrol a street in the city of Kirkuk, Iraq. 

The Kurds want independence, but they are divided 

Iraqi Kurds are scheduled to head to the polls on Sep. 25 in a vote the Kurdish independent government hopes will make the centuries-old dream of a Kurdish state a reality.

But the plan for statehood is controversial. The Iraqi government in Baghdad disputes the Kurdish government’s claims on areas like Kirkuk, the country’s oil capital.

In addition, the Kurds themselves are sharply divided. At the center of the controversy is Kurdish President Masud Barzani. 

Barzani has led the independent government since 2005 and was supposed to step down in 2013. He extended his term until 2015, citing security concerns, and has remained in power without constitutional legitimacy since then. Many Kurds argue there can only be independence if Barzani gives up power. 

The divisions are visible even on just a short drive outside of Erbil. While the Kurdish capital is filled with posters showing Barzani wearing the characteristic red and white keffiyeh, the scene is markedly different just a few miles east. In Sulaimaniyya, for example, you’ll find posters of Dschalal Talabanis, the leader of the rival PUK party, instead.

The PUK fought a civil war with Barzani’s DKP party between 1994 and 1997, and many PUK supporters still despise Barzani ― not a good precondition for a stable, governed independent state.

While the referendum is expected to yield a decisive yes for independence, many Kurds are skeptical the vote will end up bringing stability. “I am not going vote for anyone,” Erbil tour guide Karwan Waheed says, as we drive past a larger-than-life image of Talabani. “But I am going to vote for independence.”

The vote could be decisive for Barzani’s future. Analysts say any result below 95 percent for would be considered a setback for the leader ― the man who has been fighting for an independent Kurdistan for decades.

Masud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government, at a ceremony in July. 
Masud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government, at a ceremony in July. 

A state surrounded by enemies

However strong the internal support for a Kurdish state, the disapproval in neighboring countries will be at least as high. 

Despite close ties to the Barzani government, Turkey wants to prevent the vote at all costs. Iran, too, feels threatened by Kurdish efforts at independence. And even the United States, the most important ally of the Kurdish military in its fight against ISIS, has expressed skepticism about the referendum.

Turkey and Iran fear that a victory for Kurdish independence in Iraq could strengthen the national ambitions of the Kurdish populations inside their borders and intensify the conflicts between the Kurds and the central governments in Ankara and Tehran. 

The war in Syria has exacerbated those fears. Fighters of the YPG, a mainly Kurdish militia in Syria, are in control of large swathes of the country near the Turkish border. The area stretches from Afrin, across Manbij and Kobani to the Iraq border, and YPG control is only interrupted by a small corridor controlled by militias. 

For weeks now, the Turkish government has threatened a “cleanup” in Syria, as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is desperate to avoid the establishment of an area under continuous Kurdish influence so close to the Turkish border. Thousands of Turkish soldiers are said to be ready to expel YPG fighters from the Afrin region. 

The Iranian government, too, won’t tolerate Kurdish independence. “Don’t expect anything good from us,” the Iranian government said in a statement concerning the referendum.

A fair reward?

During our trip through Kurdistan, we learned that two locations in Iraq are crucial in understanding the Kurds’ argument that independence is their fair reward.

The first is Mosul, the city that was recently liberated after years under ISIS control. Many Kurds have been outraged by the Iraqi army’s claims of victory for for driving the terrorist organization out. 

They say it was Kurdish fighters who freed many of Mosul’s suburbs from ISIS fighters, enabling the triumphal procession of the Iraqi army later on. They fault Iraqi soldiers for having fled as ISIS marched on the city in the summer of 2014. “The Iraqi army fled Mosul in 2014 almost without a fight,” Waheed, the tour guide, said. “Without Peshmerga, the city would still be in the hands of ISIS.”

Many Kurds therefore consider Mosul as a symbol, an extra verse in their repeated argument of “We deserved it.”  

A history of torture and persecution

The second site is located in Sulaimaniyya, the town we visited just miles outside of Erbil. 

After a friendly Peshmerga soldier allows us to pass, we walk toward a beige-grey and box-shaped complex located in the shadow of one of Sulaimaniyya’s city parks. The walls of the former Amna Suraka Prison are riddled with bullet holes.

In March 1991, Peshmerga fighters captured the building from Saddam Hussein’s men. The Iraqi president had used the prison as a secret service headquarters and a torture prison. The building is a solemn memorial to Saddam’s Anfal campaign ― his attempts at extinguishing the Kurds, Yazidis and Assyrians in northern Iraq between 1986 and 1991. 

“My name is Mushin,” an inscription on one of the prison’s walls reads. “Captured in a corner of this cell. I was arrested at home. I was only 15 years old; they changed my age to 18 to be able to execute me. I said to my parents: Mom, Dad, I am going to be executed by Ba’athism. We will never meet again.“

Mushin is one of thousands of Kurds tortured and killed in these cells.

The Anfal campaign is just one chapter in the many years of discrimination and persecution the Kurds look back on. They demand justice and a home where they can be safe and independent ― for good.

Yet it remains to be seen whether a Kurdish state could offer that.

In reality, the Kurdish autonomous zone is dependent ― on Baghdad and on Ankara, the region’s most important economic partner. Kurdistan is currently battling a commercial crisis as the price of crude oil has dropped, donations from Baghdad have become rare and fighting ISIS consumes enormous amounts of money. 

The crisis is reflected in Erbil’s skyline. Various large-scale projects that were started many years ago have come to a standstill. Concrete high-rises without walls look like giant parking lots from afar.

The Kurds, however, refuse to give up hope.

“The construction will resume soon,” Waheed says, grinning. “After the Peshmerga has defeated ISIS.”