A large Kurdish flag hanging on the side of an unfinished market building in downtown Erbil on the Kurdish national flag day, December 17, 2015. Photo by Ayub Nuri
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region—It appears that the question of independence is once again on the Kurdish government agenda and reports suggest that Iraqi Kurds may hold a referendum this year, which marks the centenary of the Sykes-Picot agreement that left them without a state.
"It is much better to have our own state than relying on Baghdad for everything,” says Didar Younis, a shop owner in Erbil’s Sirwan Bazaar.
Younis believes that independence would solve many of the problems the autonomous region has to deal with at the moment.
“Recently, we are in a huge economic crisis, and our neighbours are our enemies. But if you have a state, the west and other countries will count your presence in the region," he argues.
The Kurdish region was made part of Iraq on the creation of that state after the First World War, but many like Younis believe that being tied to Baghdad has brought the Kurds nothing but suffering.
"Our economic situation gets worse and worse day by day, and one day we will all go bankrupt. All the blame must be put on Baghdad because they cut off our national budget... Independence will solve all the trouble we have been facing,” he is convinced.
“The KRG should decide and declare independence. We need separation from Baghdad," he adds.
Kurdish president Masoud Barzani has echoed the sentiment of many people that the Kurdish region would fare better on its own.
In the summer of 2014 when ISIS took over large swathes of Iraq’s territory, Barzani asked the Kurdish parliament to set a date for an independence referendum, saying that the Kurds no longer wanted to be part of Iraq’s troubles.
"There might be some negative consequences arising with the declaration of independence in the beginning. We need to be patient because in the end it is worth it, and we can provide a better tomorrow for our people," says Ayub Hassan, a goldsmith in downtown Erbil.
The Kurdistan Region gained autonomy in 1991 and was officially recognized in the Iraqi constitution of 2005, with a 17% share of Iraq’s national budget, which Baghdad has withheld for nearly two years and put the region in severe financial crisis.
This is why Zakaria Sarwat, a young resident of Erbil, believes the time is not right for Kurdish independence, because of its long financial reliance on Bagdad. “I don’t recommend it. I don’t think it is a good time because right now it’s only the salary that Baghdad is not sending us. If we announce our independence, what will happen? We will have nothing. It’s every Kurd’s dream to declare independence but right now it’s not a good time.”
Kurdish leaders acknowledge that an independent state will come with economic challenges among others, but they hope that the region’s untapped oil and gas reserves will make them a thriving nation.
Kamaran Abdulrahma, a 26-year-old Peshmerga on the Khazir front-line, believes that to build a nation state, more than natural resources, the Kurds need unity. "I am a Peshmerga fighting Daesh [ISIS] on the Khazir front. What we need is only unity. I call on all parties to be united. Despite the fact that we don’t get paid regularly, which is our bread, we are still fully committed to defending this land."
In late December Barzani asked high-ranking members of his Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to work with other political groups towards speeding up the referendum process and he was reported to have raised the topic with foreign diplomats in Erbil this week.
Out of the Middle East turmoil and shifting borders may eventually come the fulfilment of a Kurdish dream that was shattered a century ago.
"I believe it is the proper time for the declaration of a Kurdish independent state by President Barzani. At least we could get rid of foreign rule and I hope this dream comes true in 2016,” says Zana Sabir, a shop owner in the Nishtiman Bazaar, Erbil.