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Middle East

Will the Iraqi Kurdish referendum backfire?

media Kurds in the city of Erbil celebrate on 25 September 2017 following an independence vote across Iraqi Kurdistan. Reuters/Ahmed Jadallah

Results of Monday’s independence referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, which drew 72 percent of eligible voters despite being banned by Iraq’s Supreme Court, are almost certain to be in favour of independence.

But the vote has stirred such anger among neighbours that the Kurds may find themselves in a more difficult position as a result

Leaders of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) billed the non-binding referendum as an exercise in self-determination and said they will not actually make a real push for statehood.

Instead, they are looking to maintain their influence with Baghdad, Tehran and Ankara after having cooperated with them in the battle against the Islamic State armed group.

“The referendum for them is a bargaining chip, because it’s very difficult to negotiate with many different states when you are a region of provinces,” says Renad Mansour, research fellow with Chatham House.

“They want to make claims to disputed territory, and they want to continue along their pursuit of becoming an oil and gas producer in the region.”

However, the referendum has appeared to upset anyone they may wish to hold talks.

“The problem moving forward is that all these actors who were fighting together against Isis are now squabbling with each other over this issue,” Mansour says.

“Because it’s landlocked, the Kurdistan region needs friends, and all of its neighbours along its borders reject it vehemently. Really the biggest impact of this referendum this far has been increased antagonisms by all sides.”

Turkey and Iran watching for next moves

As they watching the KRG for what steps it decides to take, both Turkey and Iran are letting the Kurdish leadership known that this referendum hasn’t won them any favours.

“This referendum brought Iran, Turkey and the Baghdad government into acting in coordination,” notes Ege Seçkin, political analyst at IHS Country Risk. “Whereas we’ve seen in previous years, those three sides, particularly Turkey versus Iran and Turkey versus the Baghdad government, the relations had been very strained.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatening to block the flow of oil from northern Iraq and even to take military action.

“Looking at statements made by KRG officials, it seems they are actually surprised by how angry the Turks are,” Seçkin says. “And that increases the likelihood that we might in the next few weeks see some concrete measure by Turkey.”

Kirkuk a flashpoint issue

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said late Monday that his government would not dialogue about the results of what it considers an unconstitutional referendum.

“Abadi is really reluctant to give any concessions whatsoever to the Kurds, for fear that that might jeopardise his own prospects for surviving politically,” says Seçkin.

“Iraqi parliamentary elections are coming in April 2018, and they will to a great extent be a face-off between Abadi and the hard-line alternatives, the likes of former PM [Nouri] al-Maliki and so forth.”

However, the presence of Kurdish forces in and around the oil-rich city of Kirkuk following the battle against the Islamic State group is something the central government will not be able to ignore indefinitely.

“The KRG has been attempting to entrench what is a de facto control over the city, even though it actually lies outside of the formal borders of the KRG as recognised under the Iraqi constitution,” Seçkin says.

“If they try to press on that point, and if they refuse to compromise, that will be a true flashpoint.”

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