The enormous new statue of a peshmerga soldier, overlooking the Baba Gurgur oilfield, just outside Kirkuk, is a stark indication of the Iraqi Kurds’ aspirations to establish an independent state with borders that stretch beyond their historic homeland to encompass some of Iraq’s richest oilfields. A referendum on independence scheduled for September 25th will probably move the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) further down that path. But the timing of the poll has been questioned, not least because it is unclear what will come after. Some fear that a vote for independence will elicit violent responses from the government in Baghdad and from neighbouring countries.
Iraqi Kurdistan, which has enjoyed relative autonomy since 1991, already has many of the trappings of a sovereign country, including an army, a parliament and its own domain on the internet. After Baghdad withheld budget payments to the region in 2014, the KRG began selling its crude independently of the federal government. Its resources were further boosted months later after Iraq’s federal army fled the oil region in and around Kirkuk when it was threatened by the jihadists of Islamic State (IS). The job of repelling IS then fell to Kurdish militias, known as the peshmerga, who did it bravely and well.
Even so, some Kurds argue that a bid for independence is premature. “Beforehand we need to have Kurdish unity and some sort of an understanding with Baghdad,” says Mahmoud Othman, a veteran politician. “We do not have either.” The peshmerga is a unified force only on paper. Its fighters’ loyalties are divided between the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the opposition Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Parliament has not convened since 2015, when Masoud Barzani, the president, had his term extended for a second time, prompting violent protests and political deadlock. Some see the referendum as an attempt by the KDP to shore up nationalist support ahead of elections in November.