OTTAWA — A senior representative for Iraq’s Kurdish region is defending her people’s plan to hold a referendum on independence, saying they simply want to exercise the same right to self-determination as Quebecers.
Tensions in Iraq are mounting after the country’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil announced earlier this month plans to hold the long-promised referendum on Sept. 25.
Planning is now underway, despite fierce objections from Iraq’s central government in Baghdad, as well as varying degrees of opposition from the U.S., the European Union and most of Iraq’s neighbours.
Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the Kurdish government’s top diplomat in Washington, said her people have tried to live and work with the rest of Iraq, but Baghdad has chosen not to co-operate.
She cited a number of examples to illustrate the point: recent reports of the central government cutting off supplies of medicine to the Kurds, restrictions on Kurdish oil exports and a failure to resolve long-standing land disputes with Erbil.
“We have done our best to be partners in Iraq; it has not worked,” Rahman said.
“We believe this is the right time to allow the people of Kurdistan to exercise their democratic right, a right that people across the world have, to express their self-determination.”
She also cited what she called historic injustices perpetrated upon Iraqi Kurds, including the killing of thousands of Kurds by Saddam Hussein, as well as forced displacements and disappearances.
Canada has said little about the planned referendum, despite the fact Canadian soldiers have partnered almost exclusively with the Kurdish peshmerga in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
Asked about the issue last week, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said: “A unified Iraq is what we believe is the long-term solution. But ultimately these decisions have to be made by the Iraqi people, and the Kurds themselves.”
Rahman linked Canada’s reticence to weigh in on Kurdistan’s aspirations for independence to the fact it offers an uncomfortable echo of the on-again, off-again debate about sovereignty in Quebec.
“As a state that has its own province of Quebec that has exercised the right to hold a referendum, I think it would be difficult for Canada to deny that right to the people of Kurdistan,” she said.
Yet she also cautioned against comparisons between the two,, calling Iraq’s situation “a different kettle of fish” because of the tense relationship between Erbil and Baghdad.
“Ottawa would never think to cut off the medicine supply to one of its provinces, even if it was a province that was a thorn in its side,” she said. “We’re trying to have an amicable divorce from Iraq. But this is not the same as Quebec having an amicable divorce from Canada.”
Many observers say it is past time the world’s 30 million Kurds had their own country; some even say they have earned it with their efforts in the fight against the Islamic State group.
But while the U.S. and the EU are among those that have recognized the Kurds’ legitimate aspirations for self-determination, there are fears a vote now would detract from the anti-ISIL effort.
Part of the reason is because the vote will be held in Iraq’s so-called disputed territories, which includes the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, and whose ownership is claimed by both Baghdad and Erbil.
Iraq’s neighbours, meanwhile, worry that any move towards independence by Iraq’s Kurds, who number about 8 million, will lead to similar demands by the Kurdish populations within their borders.
Rahman dismissed suggestions the referendum be delayed until after ISIL is defeated, saying there is no guarantee the international community would support it even then.
And while confident, like many observers, that Kurds would vote overwhelmingly for independence from Iraq, Rahman said any actual split from the rest of the country would come through negotiations.
To that end, rather than simply standing by and watch, she said Canada could help oversee a peaceful divorce between the two sides.
“We believe that the best way to reach our desired goal is to have a negotiated settlement with Baghdad, and a negotiated settlement means dialogue,” she said.
“Encourage Baghdad to talk to us. Encourage us to talk to Baghdad in such a way that both sides can have a win-win result. If Canada can play that role, of course we would welcome it.”