NEW ORLEANS — As of 2012, six million or 23 percent of Iraqis live below the national poverty line. The high level of poverty as well as political unrest create a hotbed for extremists groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The increasing violence between the Sunni dominated ISIS and Shiite dominated Iraqi government led the Kurds, who represent approximately 15 to 20 percent of Iraq’s population, to take advantage of the chaos and demand complete independence from Iraq.
On July 3, the White House commented on the possibility of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan. According to the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, the U.S. government holds that, “it’s in the best interest of all the citizens of Iraq for that nation’s political leaders to come together, to set aside sectarian divisions, to set aside their own political ambitions and focus on the best interests of Iraq.”
However, The Hill reports that Massoud Barzani, the president of Iraqi Kurdistan, plans to hold a referendum on the issue of independence. According to Barzani, “independence is a natural right of the people of Kurdistan. All these developments [in Iraq]reaffirm that, and from now on we will not hide that the goal of Kurdistan is independence.” Along with the United States, Turkey argues strongly against Kurdish independence. Israeli leaders, on the other hand, express support for independence.
Before World War I, Kurdistan existed as an independent nation with 20 million Kurds living in the region. Following the war, the region was divided between Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Syria. Since the division of Kurdistan, the Kurds have repeatedly conflicted with governments, namely the Iraqi government, over the issue of independence and complications arising from not having their own nation. For instance, in 1988, Saddam Hussein systematically targeted and killed approximately 100,000 in Iraq because he believed the Kurds aided Iran in the Iraq-Iran War.
In 1990, Iraqi Kurdistan gained autonomy, and the Kurdistan Regional Government was established. Yet, complete independence still eludes the region.
Within Iraq, the Kurds occupy the northern region, which includes the city of Kirkuk. The wealth of oil in Kirkuk would allow for Kurdistan economic independence and greater autonomy for the region.
According to the New York Times, the Kurds made a strong statement regarding their independence when they took control of Kirkuk and established a direct trade relationship with Turkey without the permission of the Iraqi government. Leaders in Baghdad responded by refusing to give money to the region, which leaves many of their citizens without pay and their economy stalled.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Iraqi Kurds are lobbying U.S. officials to support Kurdish independence. The U.S. government holds that Iraq should remain a united country, but Barzani believes that the independence of Kurdistan is inevitable and the division in Iraq reflects “a new reality.”
– Tara Wilson
Sources: The Hill, BBC, PBS 1, PBS 2, Al Jazeera 1, Al Jazeera 2, New York Times
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