The Kurdish Quest for Independence

Tea Ivanovic
Fellow, Center for Transatlantic Relations, Johns Hopkins SAIS
Nahro Zagros
Senior Vice President, Soran University

On September 25, Iraqi Kurdistan is set to hold a referendum on independence. There are plenty of strong voices around the globe in support of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq’s (KRI) right to self-determination, but questions surround both the timing of the vote as well as the KRI’s preparedness for independence. Others, such as former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, have emphatically rejected these efforts and have even called for the use force “if necessary” to prevent KRI’s independence.

Nonetheless, due to its role as a key ally during and after the eventual defeat of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS), as well as its defense of democratic values such as tolerance and multiculturalism, an independent KRI would play a stabilizing role in a tumultuous Middle East.

An ally during and after ISIS’ defeat

In the years before ISIS began its expansion across the Middle East, the KRI was experiencing a “golden decade” of widespread prosperity, an inflow of foreign investment, and peace. The war against ISIS, a worldwide fall in oil prices, and Baghdad’s withholding of the KRI’s constitutional right to 17 percent of total budget revenues as well as the $5.4 billion-dollars in aid it received from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), brought grave costs to the people and the economy of Iraqi Kurdistan. Furthermore, the KRI now hosts 1.8 million refugees from Syria and internally displaced persons (IDPs), which has further drained the region’s economy.

Iraqi Kurdistan is an important U.S. partner in a complex Middle East with a significant role to play in the region for many years to come. For decades, the KRI has acted as a safe haven for victims of war and persecution. Militarily, Iraqi Kurdistan has been the strongest ally of the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS in Iraq. When the war against ISIS broke out, Peshmerga forces were vital in standing against ISIS and preventing them from advancing further, even as ISIS came as close as 30 miles from Erbil. Kurdish Peshmerga were left with decades old armaments to defend themselves since the KRI was prohibited from importing weapons by international arms treaties. The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) prohibits weapons sales to autonomous regions, like Iraqi Kurdistan. A measure to directly ship weapons from the U.S. to the Kurdistan region, co-sponsored by Republican Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) failed to pass the Senate in July 2015.

Furthermore, the Kurds have proven resistant to Islamic jihadists for decades, even before ISIS was established. Around the end of the 1990s, Islamic militias were created along the Iranian border on Kurdistan soil with links to al Qaeda, especially the Ansar Al-Islam group. Kurdish forces defeated them soon after their creation.

Defenders of democratic values and religious tolerance

The Kurds have faced horrendous persecutions within the Iraqi state. Former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and his Ba’ath Party destroyed thousands of Kurdish rural areas including 4,500 villages, which were rebuilt in the 2003-2014 “golden decade,” used poison gas, and deported its residents to complexes in order to restrict Kurdish autonomy. Nearly five percent of the Iraqi Kurdish population perished during this period. “The Kurds have always felt part of Iraq, but [we] were never treated as equal citizens,” said Falah Mustafa Bakir, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Iraqi Kurdistan might be an imperfect democracy, but it surely is one – with tolerance for religious and ethnic minorities, and more than 25 political parties and political groups participating in politics. Minority groups, such as the Christians and Yezidis, have representatives in parliament. Religious groups have representation in the Ministry of Religious Affairs, including a Jewish representation, even though there have been little to no Jews in Kurdistan since the 1950s.

The upcoming referendum in September was jointly announced by 15 political parties represented in parliament and government. Academic institutions and civil society groups are working hard to facilitate dialogue and promote understanding and tolerance. They often host conferences bringing together different factions of society. Notably among these was a large conference organized by the Ministry of Education and Soran University last December, bringing together international and domestic scholars, religious leaders, and government representatives.

An independent KRI would be a strong ally to the United States and a model of democratic standards and multicultural values to the rest of the Middle East. Even as an autonomous region with constrained resources, the KRI is promoting democratic standards. For example, a judge from a Yezidi background can be elected to higher office in the Kurdistan Region but is legally prevented to uphold that function in the rest of Iraq. The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) prides itself on having minority groups represented in parliament, giving them a voice in the governing structure of the KRI. An independent KRI would be a place of tolerance and multiculturalism, a ray of hope for the rest of the region.

Stability in a tumultuous region

Despite the military, financial, and humanitarian burdens, the KRG has introduced a large set of reforms for government sectors, as well as a progressive new investment law, and has also established a biometric system for tracking government employees in an effort to eliminate those who receive duplicate welfare benefits. Two international large consulting companies are retroactively auditing – on the request of the KRG – the functioning of the government. The World Bank is working on diversifying the economy and boosting the private sector – again, on the invitation of the KRG.

With all imperfections, the Kurdistan Region strives to become a full-blown democracy, and it can only achieve that when it becomes a sovereign state. Independence would allow the KRG to establish its own Central Bank to implement monetary policy (currently in the hands of the central government in Baghdad), hold reserves, and grant access to international markets for the issuing and trading of bonds, all of which would vastly improve its economy and help bring stability to a fledgling Middle East refugee crisis.


Throughout history, Baghdad’s leadership has been hostile towards the Kurdish people. During Saddam Hussein’s rule, the Iraqi central government continuously undermined development opportunities in Kurdish territories and launched continuous attacks on the Kurdish population. This week marks the 34th anniversary of the killing of 8,000 Barzani boys and men , and in March the Kurdish people commemorated the 29th anniversary of the Halabja genocide, where several thousands were killed and close to 10,000 people were injured.

Even in post-Saddam Iraq, the central Iraqi government used every legal means available to prevent the KRG’s development, whether it be Baghdad’s refusal to send arms to Peshmerga forces fighting ISIS or Baghdad not following through on multilateral financial agreements and treaties signed between the Iraqi central government and the KRG.

The KRG approaches the referendum very responsibly, with a desire to negotiate terms of its separation from Iraq in order to benefit both Baghdad and Erbil. KRG leaders have reiterated over and over again their desire to be the best neighbor to Baghdad (and to other neighboring countries) with no wish for any form of confrontation. An independent Kurdistan would be a pillar of stability and evolving democracy in a region where such efforts have yet to be realized. While independence might not immediately solve all its problems, it will lead to greater stability in the Middle East – and that is certainly in the interest of the United States.


The Author is Tea Ivanovic

Tea Ivanovic is a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at the Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Tea is also the Washington Correspondent for Oslobodjenje, a leading news outlet from the Western Balkans, and is a Fellow at Soran University in Iraqi Kurdistan. Previously, Tea was at the financial consultancy Capstone LLC and the Institute of International Finance (IIF). While completing her M.A., she was a graduate research... Read More

The Coauthor is Nahro Zagros

Dr. Nahro Zagros was born in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1974, and did his doctorate in Anthropology and ethnomusicology at York University (UK). He is Vice President of Soran University (ranked number 1 in Iraqi Kurdistan), and writes for local and international newspapers and academic journals on Kurdistan’s socio-political affairs within the wider Middle-Eastern context. His research interests include Middle Eastern politics, cultural anthropology, terrorism and counter-terrorism. Currently... Read More

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