“There will be no delay. The referendum [on independence] will take place on Sept. 25.” It was a clear message from Bayan Sami Rahman, the representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) [of Iraq] to the United States, during a panel discussion at the U.S. House of Representatives co-hosted by the London Center for Policy Research and Soran University.
Earlier this month, U.S. officials had been trying to convince the KRG to postpone the referendum, citing worries about how it may affect Iraq’s 2018 parliamentary election, according to Rudaw, an Iraqi Kurdish media outlet. The announcement of the referendum had also triggered angry reactions from Baghdad, Ankara, and Tehran, who have concerns about what an independent Iraqi Kurdistan might mean for the future of the region.
Congressman Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who was also one of the panelists at the event, expressed his unreserved support for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. Last year, he brought forward a bill in Congress to authorize shipments of arms directly to the KRG, without coordinating with Iraq’s federal government in Baghdad—the bill did not pass under the Obama administration. He recognized the role of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the war against ISIS and expressed the need to align Iraqi Kurdistan directly with the United States instead of allowing it to be dominated by “Islamist regimes in Turkey or Iran.”
Another panelist, retired Brigadier General Ernie Audino, called for the establishment of a permanent large-scale U.S. military base in Iraqi Kurdistan. A London Center Senior Fellow and a Senior Advisor to the Kurdistan National Assembly of Syria, he highlighted the KRG’s resistance to Islamic jihadism and described Erbil as “an island of decency and humanity floating to the top, like cream.”
Dr. Kamal Kolo, a Christian native of Kurdistan, stated that the KRG had spoken in favor of an autonomous area for Christian minorities within an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. He used the flow of Chaldean and Assyrian refugees into Iraqi Kurdistan as evidence that they felt safe under the jurisdiction of the KRG. He expressed that it was now up to those Christian minorities to begin negotiations with the KRG on what their status in an independent Kurdistan would look like.
Professor Walid Phares, an adviser to Donald Trump during his presidential campaign, in his remarks, speculated that American opposition to the referendum could be overcome if the following four conditions are met: first, the vote is well-organized and conducted without irregularities; second, that minorities are “well-represented” and do not raise objections; third, that the KRG is subsequently able to successfully conclude negotiations with Baghdad; and, finally, that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan does not encourage separatism in other countries. All the panelists agreed that the referendum would serve only as an initial step, providing the KRG with the mandate to enter into negotiations with Baghdad towards a final settlement.
Eli Gold, cofounder of the conservative London Center for Policy Research and its Senior Vice-President, concluded with the thought that, in Kurdistan, it is known that foreign governments cannot grant them independence; only they can grant it to themselves.
Harout Manougian is a 2017 ANCA Leo Sarkisian Intern and a 2019 MPA candidate at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.