The American and Kurdish flags woven together with roses at an American independence day event in the Kurdistan Region on July 4, 2017. Photo: Rudaw
Almost all reactions to the Kurds’ plan for an independence referendum on September 25 have been soft and non-threatening compared to the harsh language and saber-rattling we used to receive every time there was the slightest mention of Kurdish statehood. Our neighbors such as Iran and Turkey and even Iraq itself urge the Kurds to reconsider their plan and rather seek a settlement to all disputes with Baghdad instead of separation.
But the United States has taken a completely different stance and that is asking the Kurds to change the chosen date of the referendum from September to sometime after Iraq’s parliamentary elections of 2018. Their argument is that they want Iraq’s next elections to go smoothly and in a way that Shia hardliners cannot use the Kurdish breakaway against the current moderate Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi.
The Kurds have long acknowledged the importance of the United States and very much hope Washington throws its weight behind the referendum and subsequently recognize the newborn Kurdish state. And they would readily postpone the referendum if there were clear and written guarantees that the next date they choose will be nonnegotiable.
But the Kurds are not getting such guarantees and many other promises they received from Washington in the past in return for staying and working with Iraq were all broken and never mentioned again.
In 2003 when the US toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime the Kurds were asked to join the political process in Baghdad and help Iraq get back to its feet, which the Kurds did by heading to the capital and filling government and military posts assigned to them. They also ran in all Iraqi elections in order to make free vote a successful tradition in the new Iraq.
They were promised by the Americans that they if supported the transitional law the US itself will oversee the implementation of Article 58 that would solve the issue of all disputed territories between Erbil and Baghdad. In 2005 they once again pleaded with the Kurds vote for the Iraqi constitution that promised Article 140 will solve the issue and that Washington itself will ensure that it is done.
Many such promises have been given the Kurds since 2003, most recently urging them to form a joint military command with the Iraqi army for the liberation of Mosul, which the Kurds did.
So now that the Kurds have finally picked a date for the referendum and seem determined to go ahead with it, the US should stand by their side instead of working to cancel or delay it. American leaders have been saying, since they came to Iraq in 2003, that they are here to create a stable and democratic Iraq that could become a model for the rest of the Middle East. Well, that dream was dashed and has never been farther from reality.
Everything that is happening on the ground today is the opposite of a stable and democratic Iraq with strong institutions. The country is more militarized now than ever before, with multiple militia groups sidelining the army and their leaders gearing up for government and parliamentary positions in the next elections. Several years of sectarian war ethnically cleansed the capital Baghdad and three years of war with ISIS finished the job of ethnically cleansing many other parts of the country.
It is impossible to create the beacon of hope that Washington has been trying to make out of Iraq, but a living and a smaller example of it already exists in the Kurdistan Region which the world should help preserve. Iraq as a state has failed its people. Thousand-years-old communities have been uprooted from their land and those, such as the Sunnis, have been marginalized to the point of continuous rebellion. These actions are in sharp contrast of what is expected of a responsible state and nothing like what the Americans had in mind when their tanks rolled into Iraq.
This state failure has now compelled the Kurds to let go of years of investment in Iraq and instead seek a better future for themselves. The US has been giving Iraq one chance after another to no avail; why not give the Kurds just one chance.
This article was first published on July 22, 2017.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.