A man in Erbil hangs a banner that advocates for a 'Yes' vote in the Kurdistan Region's independence referendum that was held on September 25, 2017. File photo: Safin Hamed | AFP
“Now I am ready to hold another referendum on whether Kurdish people regret or insist on what they decided September 25,” Masoud Barzani said in his most recent remarks on the referendum during an interview with Al Jazeera aired Sunday.
Kurds went to the polls on September 25, 2017 to answer a simple yet decisive question: whether they wish to remain part of Iraq or create their own state.
‘Yes’ votes for independence overwhelmingly prevailed at 93 percent.
The vote was designed to give the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) a mandate in talks with Baghdad on the issue of Kurdish rights, but instead it resulted in the loss of half its post-2014 territory, including the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.
But what did the vote bring the Kurdistan Region and its people? Did its consequences merit holding the referendum at all?
“The referendum was not worth doing because we lost Kirkuk,” said Kayfi Adil, an Erbil taxi driver. “I believe it was not a good idea to hold the referendum because we did not benefit from it.”
The door had always been open to talks between Erbil and Baghdad, he said. “Were it not for the referendum we would not have lost Kirkuk … it gave Baghdad an excuse.”
Yusuf Ibrahim, who runs a stationary store in the regional capital, disagrees.
“The referendum was not a mistake. Baghdad did not leave anything to Kurds – cutting their budget share,” he said, referring to then-Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s 2014 assault on the Region’s finances.
The loss of Kirkuk harmed the Region’s economy, as it severed business ties between the disputed province and Erbil.
Erbil used to export tons of materials and goods to Kirkuk. After the events of October 16, when the Peshmerga withdrew in the face of an Iraqi and Shiite paramilitia offensive, trade was suspected. It only resumed recently when Baghdad reopened the adjoining road – with new customs fees.
Karwan Salah, a real estate agent in Erbil, admitted the loss of Kirkuk had harmed business. However, he insisted “the referendum was necessary”.
“As a nation we have the right and willing to be independent... All countries have to give sacrifices for statehood.”
Arif Qurbany, a regular Rudaw commentator, was an avid supporter of the referendum despite his reservations. He says Baghdad’s “oppression” of the Kurds began long before the referendum, thereby forcing their hand.
“Kurdistan was oppressed by Baghdad through various means even before the referendum. In addition to being the aspiration and right of Kurds, I believe [the referendum] was the outcome of the Baghdad policy against the Kurdistan Region for years,” he said.
Calling Baghdad’s punitive measures a “retaliation” to force the Kurds to remain within federal Iraq, Qurbany says the response will only bolster the case for independence.
“The retaliation process by the Iraqi government after October 16 did not push Kurds to stay within Iraq but made them feel that they are being oppressed by Baghdad,” he said.
“If Baghdad believes what it did was to prevent the division of Iraq, it is wrong, because the result was the complete opposite. Kurdistan people will want to stay in Iraq only when they think they are treated as equal citizens.”
Ziryan Rojhalati, a researcher for Rudaw Research Center, says the push for independence was badly managed. However, he has faith in the return of what the Region lost, “because the loss of some things is temporary”.
“These things come and go. But there is a fact: Kurds have been an actor in the region and it cannot be denied. The referendum was a historical day and it is a mandate which can last for hundreds of year. Its result can be implemented through power,” he said.
Many Kurdish parties at the time of the referendum warned it was held too early – that waiting would garner a stronger bargaining hand. Rojhalati says it should have been held far sooner.
“It should have been held in 2015,” he said, at the height of the ISIS war when the Peshmerga defended Kirkuk.
One year on from the vote, as the Region regains its footing, many Kurds will want to know whether the “frozen” result of the referendum will ever be implemented. With the shifting political climate in Baghdad, where the Kurds are playing a potentially pivotal role in the formation of Iraq’s next government, this freeze could well begin to thaw.