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Disputed territories pose major challenge to Kurdish referendum

The upcoming Iraqi Kurdistan’s referendum will include the disputed territories, but given the practical and technical challenges, holding the referendum on Sept. 25 will be highly unlikely.

In a July 19 statement, Kurdistan Regional Government President Massoud Barzani said that holding a referendum is a natural right of the people of Kurdistan that they will not back down from. According to the spokesperson for the Independent High Electoral and Referendum Commission (IHERC) in Kurdistan, around 6 million people in the Kurdistan Region and the disputed territories such as the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, Sinjar, Makhmour and Khanaqin have the right to vote in the referendum. Forty-eight percent of the Kurdistan Region’s land is still disputed between Baghdad and Erbil and some 2.7 million people live in the disputed territories.

According to Article 140 of the constitution, the territorial disputes between Baghdad and Erbil was set to be settled by the end of 2007, but the Iraqi government never implemented this article. For Barzani, the nonimplementation of the Iraqi Constitution is one of the main reasons he wants to hold a referendum Sept. 25 in the Kurdistan Region and the contested areas. However, there are many challenges that may eventually keep the referendum from happening on the scheduled date, especially in the disputed territories.

Barzani’s referendum decision was preceded by a vote of the Kirkuk Provincial Council (KPC) April 4 to hold a referendum to decide the future administration of the province. However, many of the Arab and Turkmen members of the KPC boycotted the vote altogether. The KPC’s vote came after a call March 14 by Kirkuk Gov. Najmiddin Karim to raise the Kurdistan flag over the government buildings in Kirkuk province. But the Iraqi Turkmen Front opposed this move and filed a case against the acting head of the KPC, Rebwar Talabani, in Baghdad. By the same token, the Arabs and Turkmens of the disputed territories are expected to boycott the upcoming referendum and ask Iraq’s supreme court to declare that holding a unilateral referendum in the disputed territories is illegal. If these measures fail, they may eventually resort to violence. Nationally, Baghdad is not happy about the planned referendum either.

Apart from Baghdad’s discontent and the opposition of the local Arabs and Turkmens to the planned referendum, there are regional and international challenges. Regionally, the influence of neighboring powers such as Turkey and Iran can affect the trend of the referendum. Iran can influence the Kurdistan Region not only because it is bordering the region, but also through its allies from the central government and the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). The PMU contains different groups, but the most powerful factions are those that maintain strong links with Tehran.

In April 2016, the PMU clashed with the peshmerga in Tuz Khormato. If the PMU and local Sunni fighters agree only on one thing, it is against the presence of the peshmerga in the disputed territories. Moreover, in a move that coincided with preparing for the referendum, Iran cut water flow from the Little Zab River to Kurdistan. Iranian officials have recently told a high-ranking Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) delegation, “If you hold a referendum, do not expect anything good from us.” More recently, the Iranian defense minister has threatened that the separatist movements in Iraq will not be tolerated. In short, Iran is unequivocally against the Kurdish referendum and will try to prevent it from taking place.

Turkey has also been an influential actor that has presented itself as a guardian of the Turkmen community in Kirkuk and other disputed territories. Turkish influence comes from the country’s strategic position for the Kurdish oil and gas and as a kin-state for the Turkmens in Iraq. Like Iran, Turkey did not mince words when it came to the referendum issue. It has already warned that holding a referendum by Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan Region would be a "grave mistake." Despite the thaw in relations between Iraqi Kurds and Turkey for the last decade, Kirkuk is where the Kurdish aspiration for independence and Turkish support for Turkmen collide.

As the referendum in the disputed territories has the potential for further instability, it attracted international objections as well. For example, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq already released a statement in which it explained that "it has no intention to be engaged in any way or form as concerns the referendum, to be held on 25 September." The United States and most of the Western countries oppose the referendum, too. US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert already told reporters that the United States supports "a unified, stable, democratic and a federal Iraq."

The Kurdish internal discord cannot be overlooked either. The rivalry between the PUK that has dominated Kirkuk — the epicenter of the disputed territories — politically and the KDP that has controlled a lot of Kirkuk's oil infrastructure can affect the timing and the possibility of holding a referendum in general and in those areas in particular.

Despite the above internal and external challenges, there are also technical obstacles over the vote. For example, the head of the Kirkuk commission has already said that "no preparations have been made for the referendum as there were no instructions from Baghdad to do so." In other words, instead of the Independent High Electoral Commission (IHEC), IHERC in Kurdistan will oversee and conduct the referendum, including voter registration. Unlike the Kurdistan Region, where data from previous elections is available, there is no reliable data on the disputed areas that IHERC can readily rely on for the voter registration. Therefore, given the time constraint and the difficulty of determining voter eligibility, it is unlikely that IHERC will be able to hold a referendum Sept. 25 in the disputed territories.

In the past, due to the difficulty of determining who will be eligible to vote, neither census nor referendum (two crucial stages of Article 140) was implemented. In other words, due to the history of forced displacement from Kirkuk under the Arabization process and returning a large number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) since 2003, defining a voter registry was particularly challenging. Further complicating the matter, since the emergence of the Islamic State in the last three years, a new group of IDPs has emerged in Kirkuk province. Not only because IHERC doesn't have enough time to figure out this complex matter, but also the commission is sharply divided over Barzani’s call for the referendum. One of the nine members of IHERC resigned on July 24, claiming that there is no serious intent by the commission to hold parliamentary and presidential elections in the Kurdistan Region as well as the upcoming referendum.

Amid all of these practical and technical challenges, holding a referendum on Sept. 25 will be difficult — if not impossible. These challenges can prevent the referendum from taking place in the first place or they might oblige Barzani to postpone the referendum, particularly in the disputed territories.

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