For Kurdish heartlands accustomed to de facto self-governance, such as Irbil and Dohuk, independence is almost an empty question. The foremost risks for bloodshed overshadow a belt of disputed territory, home to a spectrum of ethnicities and sects, some of whom endured Peshmerga control since 2014.
The Ninawa Plains are eerily reminiscent of Lebanon in 1975 on the eve of civil war, with “self-defense” militias receiving arms from foreign sponsors, while sects who coexisted for centuries spout autonomist and inflammatory rhetoric. In this climate, the arming of various factions by foreign powers is equivalent to tossing matches into a barrel of gunpowder.
Inter-factional tensions are so complex and multi-faceted that it is difficult to know whether the inevitable explosion will occur between these entities (Yazidis, Turkmen, Shabak, Kurds, Christians…) or within these factions themselves. Among the Christians (divided among Assyrians, Syriacs, Chaldeans, Catholics etc), some militias are allied to Iran; some are sympathetic to Kurdish hegemony; while the US Congress is considering support for other entities. The picture is similarly complex among the Turkmen, with their Sunni-Shiite divisions exacerbated by Daesh and Iran. Tehran-sponsored Shiite-Turkmen militias were recently deployed to liberate (Sunni-Turkmen majority) Tal Afar, setting these parties up for bitter conflict over future control of the city.
The Yazidis, who suffered terribly under Daesh, likewise have multiple factional affiliations. Yazidi lands would probably be cut in half if a Kurdish state were created. The sacred Yazidi temple of Lalish (straddling one of Iraq’s biggest oilfields) could straddle the disputed border — placing Yazidis at the center of potential future conflicts. In towns across this belt of central Iraq — Tuz Khurmatu, Amerli, Tal Afar, Sinjar — pro-Iranian Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi paramilitaries helped eject Daesh and then consolidated their own control, triggering factional skirmishes between local communities. In recent days there were clashes between Hashd fighters and the Kurdish PKK around Sinjar. This faultline south of the Kurdish regions now lies principally under the Hashd/Iranian control; part of Tehran’s broader vision for regional domination. Although Tehran virulently opposes Kurdish independence, its interests are served by prolonged uncertainty over the status of this vast belt of disputed territory, with its own proxies best-placed to exploit the vacuum.
In ethnically-mixed Ninawa, Iranian control is consolidated through loyalist Yazidi, Turkmen and Christian Hashd forces. Hashd affiliates have threatened to resort to violence if parts of Ninawa and Kirkuk are included in the referendum. Iran’s heavy investment in these localities is epitomized by opening of a Tehran-funded “Imam Khomeini Primary School” in the Shabak-Christian town of Bartella!
Dangerous narratives are audible across central Iraq. The populist narrative of “my town,” “my sect” or “my tribe” standing independent and aloof appeals powerfully to the heart, rather than the head. Similar tendencies underpinned Trump’s nativist rhetoric in America, and Brexit in the UK. We should not trivialize these slogans, yet they benefit the politicians, not those seduced by them. Ask Southern Sudanese and Eritreans — mired in conflict, famine and corruption — how they are enjoying independence.
In Washington and elsewhere, the kneejerk response to hearing about vulnerable Christian and Yazidi communities who suffered so terribly is to equip them to protect themselves. However, when America, Iran, Turkey and others all dispense weapons in this manner — even with the best of intentions — the result is a ferocious arms race.
I sympathize with the Kurds after decades of marginalization and brutality by successive Iraqi leaderships. Yet will the average citizen be better off in an independent Kurdistan?
Hashd factions today are driving around in US tanks which they liberated from Daesh, and which Daesh commandeered from the fleeing Iraqi army in 2014. Weapons falling into the wrong hands is the rule, not the exception in today’s Iraq and accounts for why everybody is armed to the teeth and preparing for war. A bruised Daesh will be seeking to reassert itself, targeting the disaffected population of Mosul and other Sunni cities; many of whom suffered brutally from “victors’ justice.”
We hear both Arabs and Kurds talking about Kirkuk in hushed terms as if it were the sacred Iraqi equivalent of Jerusalem. Ironically, if you’d visited Kirkuk around 1930, you’d have found a nondescript town with a Turkmen majority. The discovery of oil sent a flood of Arab and Kurdish workers into this town whose ethnic identity has been gerrymandered ever since by successive governors and leaderships.
Although Arab and Kurdish populations have been brainwashed into advocating some mystical connection with Kirkuk, this dispute is about monopolizing resources. So when Al-Hashd Al-Shaabi’s Abu-Mahdi Al-Muhandis threatens to invade Kirkuk if Kurds try to consolidate their control, he is not acting out of nationalism, but seeking to secure strategic dominance for his Iranian paymasters.
I sympathize with the Kurds after decades of marginalization and brutality by successive Iraqi leaderships. Yet will the average citizen be better off in an independent Kurdistan? Considering that the PUK, KDP and other factions run their zones of control like private fiefdoms, one could be skeptical. A best-case scenario would be that rival Kurdish factions do not slide back into low-level warfare. Meanwhile, the separatist designs of Iraqi Kurds are having a destabilizing impact upon Kurdish factions in Syria, Iran and Turkey. When almost the only outside advocate of Kurdish independence is Israel, one has to ask whose interests are being served.
Utopian autonomy aspirations for disparate Turkmen, Christian and Yazidi minorities are even less realistic, but reflect the fears of peoples who have long been persecuted by dictators and extremists. The various sub-regional and limited-autonomy proposals for Ninawa must be cautiously considered, to avoid producing a fragmented region susceptible to domination by proxy forces beholden to regional powers.
The logic of self-determination leads to fragmentation, fratricidal warfare and foreign domination. In Ninawa, past tragedies are sowing the seeds of future catastrophes.
Iraq today has only slim prospects of avoiding a relapse into prolonged sectarian conflict. This nation urgently needs a radically different form of governance, not based on cronyism and corruption; but rather a representative system that fairly distributes Iraq’s vast resources, inculcating a shared sense of belonging to a pluralistic but unified state.
There are few grounds for optimism. We can only hope that Iraq’s politicians stare hard into the abyss that they have dug for their nation — and take a decisive step back from the brink.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate, a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.