Iraq’s semi-autonomous and oil-rich Kurdish region will hold a referendum on independence on Sept. 25, according to an adviser to President Massoud Barzani.
The vote will be followed by another — for a new parliament and president — on Nov. 6, the adviser, Kifah Mahmoud, said by phone in Erbil, the seat of the Kurdistan Regional Government. The dates were set during a meeting between Barzani and local political parties.
Falah Mustafa, who heads the KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations, said on Twitter that the plebiscite would mark the first “step towards a peaceful independence.” Other senior Kurdish officials, though, have in the past been more circumspect, arguing that the primary aim of a vote would be to ensure greater self-determination rather than outright independence.
Setting a date for the referendum may be an attempt to “pressure” the central government to deal with contentious issues between Baghdad and the region, such as the status of disputed cities, said Ihan Al-Shammari, an Iraqi political analyst in Baghdad. The move could also be a way of testing the reactions of neighboring Turkey and Iran, which are both concerned about autonomy aspirations among their own Kurdish minorities, he said.
Hemim Hawrami, a senior adviser to Barzani, said on Twitter that the referendum will cover Iraqi Kurdistan, including the disputed city of Kirkuk as well as Khanqin, Sinjar and Makhmor. Kurds in the region will be asked a single question in September, he said: “Do you want an independent Kurdistan?”
Wednesday’s announcement comes about a week after the KRG signed a deal with Russia’s Rosneft to develop energy infrastructure aimed at boosting its exports of oil to 1 million barrels a day, according to Rudaw news agency. The agreement, if finalized, won’t come into effect for at least another three months. The KRG says it currently has an export capacity of 700,000 barrels per day, and is exporting around 600,000 barrels per day.
The KRG has been emboldened by the weakening of the central government in Baghdad as it has struggled to regain territory lost to Islamic State. When the Iraqi army deserted Kirkuk in 2014, Iraq’s Kurds took parts of the city and its environs and now control significant oil exports. Their leaders have frequently vowed to hold an independence referendum.