Sixth Anniversary of Kurdistan Independence Referendum: A Landmark Decision
Today marks the sixth anniversary of the historic independence referendum of the Kurdistan Region, a pivotal moment in the modern history of Kurdish struggle for self-determination. On September 25, 2017, the people of Kurdistan took to the polls to determine their fate: whether to remain part of Iraq or pursue statehood. This move was spearheaded by then Kurdistan President Masoud Barzani and faced international skepticism and opposition from neighboring states and Baghdad.
In June 2017, political parties in the Kurdistan Region established the Referendum High Council, setting the referendum date for September 25. The decision to hold the vote was driven by growing tensions with Baghdad, including budget cuts and violations of the Iraqi constitution.
The international community, neighboring states, and Baghdad had urged Kurdish leaders to delay the referendum, citing concerns about its timing. However, Kurdish authorities argued for an amicable separation, emphasizing their desire to be good neighbors rather than pursuing conflict.
The tension between Erbil and Baghdad had been brewing since 2014 when Iraq's then-Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, cut Kurdistan's share from the federal budget. This pressure continued during the fight against the Islamic State (IS), where Kurdish Peshmerga forces played a crucial role.
Leading up to the referendum, there was a surge in diplomatic delegations visiting Erbil. President Barzani and Chancellor of Kurdistan Region Security Council, Masrour Barzani, met with representatives from the US, EU, Gulf states, and Baghdad. However, no realistic alternative to the referendum was proposed.
Huge rallies were held across the Kurdistan Region, and Kurds in the diaspora organized rallies in the EU and the US to garner international attention and support for their cause.
Neighboring states, particularly Iran and Turkey, expressed deep concerns about the potential for an independent Kurdistan on their borders, fearing it could inspire their own Kurdish populations to seek independence.
On September 25, 2017, despite external pressure, 72.16% of eligible voters (3,305,925 people) turned out to cast their votes, with an overwhelming 92.73% voting in favor of independence.
In response to the referendum's outcome, neighboring states and Baghdad increased pressure on the Kurdistan Region, massing their armies on the border and imposing flight bans and blockades.
The referendum also extended to disputed territories, most notably oil-rich Kirkuk. This led to a military operation by the Iraqi army and Iranian-backed militias against Peshmerga positions. A faction within the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) reportedly played a role in the collapse of the defense line.
Six years after the independence referendum, the Kurdish leadership continues to view it as a landmark, legal, and constitutional decision. President Barzani has stated that while some may perceive it as a mistake, he and millions of Kurds in Kurdistan still believe it was their natural right to pursue self-determination.
The Kurdistan independence referendum of September 25, 2017, remains a pivotal moment in the region's history, highlighting the Kurds' determination and their quest for self-determination. While it faced challenges and regional opposition, the legacy of this historic vote endures, reminding the world of the Kurds' significance in the Middle East. President Barzani has even expressed his willingness to hold another referendum to gauge whether the people of Kurdistan regret their decision.