Political: The Kurdish referendum is due to take place on 25 September 2017. The vote aims to determine whether the Kurdish population in Iraq wish to gain independence from the central government in Baghdad. The Kurdish region in Iraq is already semi-autonomous, and the population has long been campaigning for independence. The outcome is likely to be a yes vote, signalling the continued desire for independence. However, the referendum will have no immediate administrative effects. The Iraqi parliament in Baghdad is heavily opposed to the referendum. In addition, international actors have condemned the referendum and its timing.
The Kurdish Region in Iraq (KRI) gained semi-autonomy in 2005 with the new Iraqi constitution (which they helped to write), and have long sought full independence. The Kurdish referendum ballot asks “Do you want the Kurdistan region and the Kurdistani areas outside the region’s administration to become an independent state?”. The outcome is likely to be a ‘Yes’ vote, due to seemingly overwhelming support from Kurds in the region. However, not all in the KRI are in favour of the vote. The area is ethnically mixed, with significant Yazidi and Turkmen populations. This has already caused some violent clashes. On 19 September, one person was killed and three injured in a clash between Kurds and Turkmen in Kirkuk. A curfew has since been imposed on the city.
Should the ‘Yes’ vote win, the KRI is unlikely to instantly secede from Iraq. The vote is not legally binding, and merely shows the desire for an independent Kurdish state. Instead, Kurdish President Barzani has said that a slow devolvement of powers will occur. Yet many have criticised the referendum as a political power play to ensure Barzani wins re-election in elections on 1 November 2017. In addition, political infighting and dire economic issues within the KRI may stall the devolvement process.
The Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have been key in the fight against Islamic State (IS). The initial territorial expansion of Islamic State directly threatened Kurdish borders, with IS coming close to the city of Erbil. Kurdish Peshmerga forces pushed IS back all the way to Mosul. However, in doing so they captured and held key areas previously not under Kurdish control, including the cities of Kirkuk and Sinjar. Some estimates suggest that the areas administered by, and under de facto control of, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) expanded by up to 40 per cent. These areas have significant economic resources, housing several major oil fields. The Kurdish referendum seeks to integrate these newly captured territories into the KRI; the referendum ballot question accommodates this.
The Iraqi government in Baghdad is fiercely against the idea of an independent Kurdistan. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has formally demanded the suspension of the Kurdish referendum; this has also been reiterated by the Iraqi Supreme Court. However, neither the Supreme Court nor officials in Baghdad, have the legal authority to stop this referendum. Iraqi officials fear the loss of revenue and territory to a Kurdish State. Much of the oil revenue in Iraq comes from Kurdish areas, and these losses will have a substantial impact on the central government. The Iraqi parliament particularly fears the loss of Kirkuk. The town is ethnically mixed, despite it being politically dominated by Kurds. Recently, the Iraqi parliament fired the powerful Kurdish governor in Kirkuk. Some Iraqi government forces and militias are already positioned near the proposed Kurdish borders. It is unclear whether they will be used, although an overt military offensive against the KRI is unlikely in the short to medium term.
Turkey is particularly concerned about the Kurdish referendum. Turkey houses a significant Kurdish population in its restive southeastern region, who have been campaigning for greater autonomy. The Iraqi Kurdish referendum is likely to increase calls by Turkish Kurds for independence. Turkish Kurds have also launched a long-term terrorism campaign; Turkey fears this could be supported by an independent Kurdish state in Iraq. The Turkish military has already conducted air assaults within the KRI against Kurdish militants. On the 19 September 2017, Turkey militarised its border with the KRI. This included embedding heavy artillery in the area, pointing towards Kurdistan. Interestingly, Turkey has a well-developed relationship with the KRI. Turkey is key to exporting Kurdish oil, and the two have deep economic ties. Turkey has also helped Iraqi Kurdish fighters in the fight against IS. The result is that Turkey, while supporting Kurdish autonomy, does not wish for any change to the status quo of the region.
Similarly, groups in Syria fear the referendum. Kurdish fighters in Syria hold large expanses of territory, taken from IS. This could potentially compose a second independent Kurdish state, enthused by the independence movement in Iraq. Iran also fears that a ‘Yes’ vote will increase Kurdish separatism within its borders. Iran heavily sponsors Shiite militias in Iraq, and could potentially use them to regain control of Kirkuk, should the city be integrated into the Kurdish region. Iran has already said that should a ‘Yes’ vote occur, it will close its borders with the region. On 21 September 2017, Iran, Iraq and Turkey announced that joint counter-measures could be enforced against the KRG should the referendum go ahead. The Kurdish referendum has brought international condemnation. The United States and the UK are against the vote, suggesting that the focus should remain on defeating Islamic State. The only country supporting the vote is Israel. The Kurdish independence referendum will inevitably go ahead despite these criticisms. However, it is unclear if, or when, a fully independent Kurdistan will secede from Iraq.
There is likely to be protests or celebratory gatherings in the run up to and aftermath of the referendum. Increased checkpoints have already been noted as well as security patrols in some areas, especially Kirkuk. There is also a security curfew in place in some cities. If travelling within country, it is vital that travellers adhere fully to the instructions of security forces; opposition may result in a forceful response.
It is recommended that pre- and post-referendums protests are avoided. It is likely police will use forceful measures against demonstrators. Political gatherings may initially seem peaceful but can escalate quickly into violence. Large gatherings are also potential targets for terrorism. It is important for travellers and those residing in Iraq to continually assess their evacuation plans as Islamic State attacks are often unpredictable and cause mass casualty events. Travellers should be aware of the ongoing and unpredictable disruption to flights and travel. It would be advisable for travellers to maintain a low profile in the short-term and monitor local events.
Full extensive journey management planning is vital for any travel to Iraq. Armoured escorts would be recommended for road moves in high risk areas as well as a well-trained armed security team. Solace Global would advise all clients travelling throughout Iraq to use travel-tracking technology with an intelligence feed, to gain rapid access to the security updates. Such technology can also notify others in case an emergency occurs. This is essential in identifying and avoiding areas of high risk in real time, and will enable users to further mitigate the risks arising from travelling in Iraq.