The people of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq will vote this month in a referendum to determine their will — whether to strive for independence or to remain as part of Iraq.
Certainly, this decision is emotional. Before the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Ba’ath Party committed genocide against our people, killing 182,000 and sending hundreds of thousands more to live abroad in exile. They used chemical weapons to decimate our villages and livelihoods, seeking to crush the Kurdish identity. Every single family was affected by this persecution.
But the decision to become independent is ultimately pragmatic, and one we must make. After the fall of Saddam, Kurdistan joined the Iraqi government, envisioning an Iraq that worked for all of us. Unfortunately, a decade of experience has taught us that our security and prosperity is a result of our own initiatives, not those of the federal government. The Constitution, which was heavily negotiated and voted on overwhelmingly in favor of, has not been honored. Key provisions, like Article 140 which would have solved the issue of the disputed territories in Sinjar, Kirkuk, and elsewhere, was never implemented. We count more than 50 other articles that have been violated.
These problems have festered, particularly in the disputed territories. Prior to 2014, the security situation in the disputed territories was very bad. There were daily terrorist attacks and explosions. For one, the relationship between the federal government and the local populations was heavily strained. Under former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi army, once a multi-ethnic force, became highly sectarian. In 2003, Kurds made up 25 percent of the Iraqi army, with Sunni Arabs being 20 to 25 percent. Today, Kurds comprise only around 1 percent of the army, Sunni Arabs 8 percent, with the rest being Shiite. The lack of political cohesion between the KRG and Baghdad meant command and control of such diverse forces was defective.
When ISIS appeared in 2014, they found a local population of Sunnis that felt marginalized by the federal government and brutalized by the military, which they saw as a Shiite force. In places like Mosul, the army evaporated, leaving behind advanced military equipment and cash that turned ISIS into the most well-funded, well-equipped terrorist organization in the world nearly overnight. With a security vacuum, the lack of social cohesion quickly led to a genocide of Yezidis and Christians.
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Shortly after Mosul fell, Iraqi military forces abandoned Kirkuk. We mobilized our forces to protect Kirkuk, saving the city and its vast oil resources from also falling into ISIS hands. Since that time, Peshmerga in and around Kirkuk have repelled daily attacks from suicide bombers and ISIS forces seeking to enter the city. When they have managed to penetrate, as they did in October 2016, Kurdish counter-terrorism forces took them out. This was especially frustrating because a decade prior, our Peshmerga forces had turned over security of the city to the Iraqi Army as part of a negotiation settlement.
Kurdistan’s Peshmerga forces play an essential role in the fight against ISIS and the protection of religious and ethnic minorities. Our forces liberated thousands of square miles from ISIS and laid the groundwork for the liberation of Mosul. We have rescued 3,100 Yezidi women who were kidnapped by ISIS. And we provide sanctuary for more than 1.8 million displaced Iraqis and Syrians, an enormous burden in our region of 5.2 million. It should also be noted that virtually all of the Christians and Yezidis in Iraq are currently in Kurdistan, many having fled persecution in Baghdad and southern Iraq.
The people of Kurdistan have paid a heavy cost for peace in our region, under incredibly difficult circumstances that were more often than not a result of Baghdad’s refusal to see Kurdistan as a strategic asset, rather than a liability. In this war alone, we have suffered more than 10,155 wounded and 1,800 killed in action. The tally is more soldiers killed per capita (32 per 100,000) than United States forces lost in all of the Vietnam War (27 per 100,000).
The future for Kurdistan in Iraq is dark. The entire history of Iraq has been cycles of genocide, and already we are seeing the next war over the horizon. Iraqi society has become highly militarized and leaders of Popular Mobilization Units continue to threaten violence against Peshmerga forces, vowing to ‘liberate’ territory that we are protecting. Although there are risks associated with leaving Iraq, we see far greater risks by staying part of it.
If we are to find peace in our part of the world, local populations must be given the chance to decide their future for themselves. Iraq has failed to resolve the issues that lead to ISIS and to genocide. With 12 years of experience in Iraq, we know that Iraq’s political leaders are unable to solve those problems in the near term. And so, we have decided to take the first step towards a post-ISIS Iraq by holding a referendum.
Peace is only sustainable when local populations have constructive relationships with their security and political apparatus – this is a lesson Iraq must learn. Although there are challenges to overcome, I believe that a Kurdistan independent of Iraq is the only way to create successful political frameworks to ensure peace.
Staff Brig. Gen. Hajar Ismail is director of coordination and relations, Iraqi-Kurdistan Regional Government, Ministry of Peshmerga.