Scepticism tempers enthusiasm after Kurdish referendum

The inundating international and regional pressure on the KRG may swiftly sour the mood in the capital.

On tenterhooks. Iraqi Kurds wave the Kurdish flag as they celebrate the independence referendum in the streets of Erbil, on September 27. (AFP)

2017/10/01 Issue: 125 Page: 2

The Arab Weekly
Yunus Paksoy

Erbil- Iraqi Kurds in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan Regional Gov­ernment (KRG), were jubilant as they celebrated participa­tion in the referendum on their independence.

Although signs of celebration appeared to be more visible in Er­bil than in the streets of KRG re­gions of Dohuk and Sulaimaniyah, the referendum was undoubtedly the main topic of debate for mil­lions of Iraq’s Kurds.

KRG President Masoud Barzani announced in June that the refer­endum would take place Septem­ber 25 and insisted on sticking to the date despite objections from the Iraqi central government in Baghdad and regional and interna­tional pressure.

When the region’s most contest­ed day knocked on the door, most Iraqi Kurds were exuberant.

“This has always been my child­hood dream. I have been waiting for this for a long time,” said Wali Haci, a 29-year-old Kurdish man, prior to casting his vote in Erbil.

By the time the sun set and the referendum committee began counting the votes, Iraqi Kurds had poured onto the streets of Er­bil, which were emblazoned with KRG flags. Signs of celebrations or promotion of independence were visible in most streets and neigh­bourhoods in Erbil.

Ferhad Huner, a 52-year-old Kurd, said he could not contain his jubilant mood. “This is what we have always been waiting for,” he shouted as he chanted for inde­pendence near the Erbil castle.

The referendum passed with 92% of the vote, the election com­mission announced, but the inun­dating international and regional pressure on the KRG may swiftly sour the mood in the capital.

Neighbouring Turkey and Iran have staunchly opposed the for­mation of an independent Kurdis­tan.

The Turkish government took the case much further than ex­pressing concern. Turkish Presi­dent Recep Tayyip Erdogan threat­ened the KRG with shutting off the oil trade, which is the lifeline of the Iraqi Kurdish region, and clos­ing the Habur border gate, another staggering blow to Barzani.

The Iraqi Kurdish autonomous administration lives on oil trade. Selling 600,000 barrels a day, the KRG transfers 550,000 of them via Turkey. A breakdown of ties with Turkey could result in an unprec­edented crisis for the young KRG.

The Habur border gate at the Turkish-Iraqi border could turn into another headache for Barzani. Shelves at supermarkets and coun­ters in the bazaars in Erbil are filled with Turkish-made products and goods shipped via Turkey.

In spite of the buoyancy, people were aware of the utmost signifi­cance of trade with Turkey. “We would be finished if Turkey shut down the border gate,” said an Iraqi Kurdish businessman who asked to remain anonymous. “I have trucks waiting at the border. I would lose millions in dollars if the border were to remain closed for months.”

Data provided by Turkey’s Min­istry of Customs and Trade indi­cated that 1,141,198 trucks passed through the gate in 2016.

Mehmet, a Kurd who did not wish to give his full name, said he was perturbed by the ongoing strife. Running a kiosk in Erbil, the Iraqi Kurd sighed over the possi­bility of his business going bust if Ankara imposes sanctions. “I am fully for the independence but sanctions would mutilate us,” Me­hmet said.

While the Iraqi Kurds are excited about independence, they appear to harbour deep concerns at the same time.

The Iraqi central government’s sanctions are also capable of hurt­ing the KRG. After Baghdad urged the KRG to hand over control of border posts and airports, it called on foreign countries to halt flights and deal with the central govern­ment for other businesses.

KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani admits the reality. “Of course, there will be problems. It will definitely have a negative im­pact on the people,” said Barzani about sanctions.

The KRG stressed that it sought dialogue and negotiations and that the referendum had not drawn any borders.

In such an environment where the pressure mounts on the au­tonomous region economically and politically, the KRG may have a mountain to climb before realis­ing “the childhood dreams” of mil­lions of Iraqi Kurds.

Yunus Paksoy is an Istanbul-based Turkish journalist who covered the wars in Syria and Iraq.

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