In 1918, British Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Noel ascended the mountain region of what is today northern Iraq. Through a thicket of fine junipers he followed a Kurdish elder named Tappu Agha. When the travellers reached the winter home of Tappu, they sat for a meal and the elder, seated among his tribe, unspooled a tale about his people.
Many years before, Tappu’s ancestor emigrated with several families to settle the land where Tappu now made his winter quarters, an area then occupied by a nomadic group of Turks. Invitations to grand repasts were traded between the two tribes, and on the day that the Kurds had planned to host the Turks in kind, they sent a young man to tell the Turks that the meal was ready.
But they refused to join them, saying, “How can we be expected to accept the hospitality of a lot of ignorant Kurdish shepherds?”
Hearing this, the young Kurdish messenger pulled out his bludgeon and badly beat 30 Turks. The chief of the Turks proposed a counter attack, but his tribe refused. As one man said, “How can we take on people of whom a mere boy can fight with 30 of our men? It is better for us to fly this country than to have to live with such neighbours.”
This they did, according to Lieutenant-Colonel Noel, leaving the land to its present occupants – the Kurds. A didactic parable to be sure, and one that favours the Kurds, but it is a story that highlights the long-preserved narrative of pride, retribution and feelings of dismissal that the Kurdish people (five to six million in Iraq alone) still hold, however grudgingly. It also speaks to the sectarian provocations ascribed to the region.
These feelings were no more pronounced than on 25 September this year, when the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq held an independence referendum to announce its desire to create a new nation state separate from Iraq. Official results suggest more than 92 per cent of voters chose to secede from Iraq.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) is seeking independence because of marginalisation and economic disagreements that range from oil revenues to slashed salaries. Countries such as Iran, Turkey and the United States cautioned the KRG against such a vote, fearing it would hamper the ongoing fight against Islamic State.
“Analysis might say it [the vote] is symbolic or might offer the Kurds a strong hand in negotiations with Iraq,” said Ayub Nuri, editor of Rudaw English, a news website, and the author of Being Kurdish in a Hostile World, “but I believe and hope that it is for independence and that soon after, there will be a declaration.” For now, the KRG will continue talks with the central government in Baghdad, supporting the analysis that the referendum was largely symbolic.
The two separate governments – the KRG, headed by the Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani in the capital Erbil, and the Iraqi central government in Baghdad, headed by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi – have peacefully co-ordinated military efforts since Islamic State erupted out of the Syrian desert to claim some of Iraq’s largest cities. But the relationship between both parties has since grown tense.
“The referendum is more of an agitprop statement by the Kurdish parties. And the groups that oppose it are mostly just not going to show up for it,” Nathaniel Rabkin, the managing editor of Inside Iraqi Politics, a political risk newsletter, said ahead of the referendum. “The one place where you might have real trouble are these few areas where there’s really … mixed towns and villages, especially Tuz Khurmatu in Saladin Province.”
The referendum was indeed met with pockets of violence. Voters in Mandali, about 150 kilometres east of Baghdad in the Kurdish region, were forced at gunpoint to vote against seceding from Iraq.
Here in Tuz Khurmatu, the crossroads between Baghdad, Kirkuk, and the disputed areas within Diyala province claimed by Kurdish forces but not officially part of the semi-autonomous region, clashes between security forces left at least one Kurdish Peshmerga fighter dead and two injured.
“Those small incidents are caused by some minor [Iraqi] PMU militiamen who shot Peshmerga forces trying to vote in the referendum,” a Kurdish Asayish security force spokesperson, Captain Farhad Hama Ali, said. The Peshmerga “mistakenly entered an area that is monitored by PMU”, he said, using the acronym for predominantly Shiite paramilitary forces, or Popular Mobilisation Units. A similar clash in the area between the same two security forces in 2014 left six Kurds and some 30 PMU fighters dead.
The city of Kirkuk, about an hour’s drive north, whose population includes Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, is arguably the most hotly contested city within the disputed areas. Its oil reserves are crucial to the KRG economy – and also highly prized by Baghdad. Voting was held here despite the protests of the international community.
Douglas Ollivant, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, said that giving Kirkuk its own special status between the two governments might ease tension. “Of course, the issue of Kurdish independence probably isn’t financially viable without Kirkuk, so you have a chicken and egg problem.”
These areas and the disputes within them will continue to be at the heart of power struggles between the KRG and Baghdad for years to come.
Temporary lines of security and domination, whether drawn by a bludgeon more than a century ago or with an assault rifle today, have become permanent borders.
Regardless of sweeping victory for Kurdish independence in the vote, little matters more than where lines had settled in the months, weeks and days before the referendum.