Iraq’s Kurds set for contentious independence vote

Yes or no: an employee with the Kurdish electoral commission in Arbil shows a ballot book for Monday's vote. (AFP)
Updated 24 September 2017
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Iraq’s Kurds set for contentious independence vote

Irbil, Iraq: Iraqi Kurds were preparing to vote in a referendum set for Monday on independence for their autonomous northern region, despite warnings within the country and from neighbors Iran and Turkey.
Iran upped the pressure on Sunday, announcing it had blocked all flights to and from Kurdistan at Baghdad’s request.
Iraq’s federal government has called the referendum unconstitutional and there are concerns the vote could lead to unrest.
Washington and many Western countries have also called for its postponement or cancelation, saying it will hamper the fight against the Daesh group.
But in regional capital Irbil, the political heartland of President Massud Barzani who initiated the referendum, Kurdish flags were everywhere.
Most in the city said they would vote, but some also feared the possible consequences.
“We look forward to hearing what the situation will be after September 25, as most Kurds will vote for independence to fulfil our dream of an independent state,” said laborer Ahmad Souleiman, 30.
“What we’re afraid of is that our enemies have evil intentions toward us.”
Iran and Turkey have sizeable Kurdish populations of their own and fear the vote will stoke separatist aspirations at home.
Iran’s official IRNA news agency cited a security spokesman Sunday as saying: “At the request of the central government of Iraq, all flights from Iran to Sulaymaniyah and Irbil, as well as all flights through our airspace originating from the Kurdistan region, have been stopped.”
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim again denounced the referendum on Sunday, saying it would “further fuel existing instability, lack of authority and chaos in the region.”
Some five million Kurds are expected to vote in the three provinces that have since 2003 formed the autonomous region of Kurdistan but also in territories disputed with Baghdad such as the oil-rich province of Kirkuk.
“We all support independence because we don’t see the benefit of staying in Iraq. But we’re afraid of plots by neighboring countries,” 27-year-old clothes seller Kamaran Mohammed said in Irbil.
While an independent homeland has long been an aspiration in the Kurdish diaspora, the ethnic group’s two main parties in Iraq differ on how to make it a reality.
Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani are at opposite ends of the spectrum politically on the issue.
The PUK has backed an alternative plan put forward by the United Nations, and supported by Washington, for immediate negotiations on future relations in exchange for dropping the referendum.
In Sulaymaniyah, the PUK-controlled second city of the autonomous region, enthusiasm for the vote was muted.
“Since I was a child, I’ve dreamt of the day our flag appears at the United Nations,” said Hama Rashid Hassan, 51.
But others on Sunday were more cautious.
“I will vote ‘no’ tomorrow because I’m afraid of an embargo on the region, of civil war with the Hashed Al-Shaabi (grouping of Shiite paramilitaries), and waking up and seeing Turkish soldiers patrolling,” said 30-year-old teacher Kamiran Anwar.
The most sensitive sticking point is Kirkuk where there was a run on food supplies in the city Saturday as residents stocked up in case of post-referendum trouble.
On Saturday, the PUK proposed to Barzani that voting not take place in disputed areas but on Sunday party official Adnan Mufti said a deal had been agreed for the referendum to go ahead in Kirkuk.
Home to Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens, Kirkuk is disputed between the federal government and Iraq’s Kurds who say it is historically theirs.
They argue that the late dictator Saddam Hussein chased them out and replaced them with Arabs.
Threats are growing inside Iraq against the Kurdish move.
“There will be a high price to pay by those who organized this referendum, a provocation aimed at destroying relations between Arabs and Kurds,” said Hashed Al-Shaabi leader Faleh Al-Fayad.
“As soon as the referendum takes place there will be a legal and constitutional reaction.”
The Hashed grouping of paramilitary units was created in 2014 to battle the Daesh group.
Iran-backed militia Asaib Ahl Al-Haq, which comes under the Hashed umbrella, urged Baghdad to “take legal measures to confront this project that threatens civil peace and national security.”
Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards also began military exercises Sunday along the border with Iraqi Kurdistan.
Such exercises are common in the region, due to the persistent threat posed by Kurdish separatists, who regularly carry out cross-border attacks against Iranian security forces.


In Iraq’s Anbar, election offers chance to settle scores

Updated 26 April 2018
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In Iraq’s Anbar, election offers chance to settle scores

  • In January 2014, Daesh militants captured the city of Fallujah just west of the capital, and after a year of heavy fighting they took the city of Ramadi too
  • Three years of brutal militant rule may have helped ease sectarian tensions between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites

RAMADI, Iraq: In the vast desert province of Anbar where Daesh group militants first emerged in Iraq, parliamentary elections next month are an opportunity for the predominantly Sunni residents to settle scores.
Many of the new candidates are eager to push out lawmakers they believe minimized the danger of — or even sympathized with — the Sunni extremists that stormed across the country in the summer of 2014.
“The political class that existed before IS is no longer suitable. They have lost their credibility with the residents of Anbar,” said Rafea Al-Fahdawi, who heads the candidate list in the province for the Victory Alliance led by Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi.
“They were involved in bringing terrorism and made people believe that terrorists were just rebels belonging to our tribes. The people of Iraq will punish them at the ballot box,” said Fahdawi, leader of the Tribes Against Terrorism coalition that battled militants in the western province.
In the lush garden surrounding his home in the city of Ramadi, tents were set up to host crowds that came to listen to Abadi, part of the premier’s campaign tour in the area.
“We fought against terrorism, and today, thanks to our campaign, we want to continue the fight against sectarianism. We have great hope for change,” said Fahdawi, 62, dressed in a traditional white robe.
In late 2013, Sunni tribes in Anbar rose up against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
In January 2014, Daesh militants captured the city of Fallujah just west of the capital, and after a year of heavy fighting they took the city of Ramadi too.
It was not until 2016 that the Iraqi army and the paramilitary forces of the Hashed Al-Shaabi managed to retake the two cities, recovering full control of Anbar province in late 2017.
The people of Anbar are eager for change, their feelings fueled by burning disappointment with the political class.
In the largely agricultural province, where tribes carry considerable weight, 352 candidates are competing on 18 lists for 15 seats.
A quarter of the contenders are running for office for the first time, according to the electoral commission, who say the province’s electoral lists include women and young people.
“The Iraqi people, in general, want to see radical and complete change. We will not accept the same faces under different (party) names and slogans,” said Sheikh Mohammed Al-Nimrawi, a leader of the Khalidiya tribes in Ramadi.
In a sign of the times, election fever has taken over the province.
It is a stark difference from previous polls and campaigns, which were bleak and almost secretive affairs as militants increased attacks on polling stations.
Despite Daesh threats against this year’s elections, campaign posters are everywhere in Anbar — hanging on the city’s destroyed homes and on the walls of newly rented candidate offices.
Even more surprising is the presence of a list from the Conquest Alliance led by Hadi Al-Ameri, the most well-known leader of the largely Shiite Hashed Al-Shaabi.
Ameri fought for Tehran in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war and has been accused of forming death squads in Iraq at the height of sectarian tensions nearly 10 years ago.
“The time for change has come. Anbar will witness social and political revolution and choose men who can steer the ship to safety,” said Khalaf Al-Jeblawi, a candidate on the Conquest Alliance list.
“The province has emerged from a fierce war and the Hashed fighters played a big role in the battle,” he said.
The Hashed Al-Shaabi paramilitary force was formed in 2014 at the urging of Shiite spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani to counter the Daesh blitz.
But three years of brutal militant rule may have helped ease sectarian tensions between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites.
“While sectarian identities do retain a (somewhat diminished) political relevance, when it comes to violence, today ‘sectarianism’ is yesterday’s conflict,” said Fanar Haddad, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.
“I think that, for now, sectarian division is no longer the defining feature of Iraqi political mobilization.”