Kirkuk, a province in northern Iraq home to Kurds, has voted to take part in next month’s Kurdish independence referendum, in a session, however, that was boycotted by Turkmen and Arab members.
Ethnic Kurds number at least thirty million people spread out over parts of Iraq, Turkey, Syria, and Iran. Kurdish statehood has been a dream since at least the time of the first world war. The group has been victim to many of the same colonial policies that are partially responsible for ongoing instability in the middle east. Britain and France struck a secret deal during the war that formally outlined the spheres of influence in the middle east for both parties after the war. The Kurds lived among multiple spheres of influence, limiting their ability to have their own country.
The central government in Baghdad is strongly opposed to Iraqi Kurdistan’s planned September 25 referendum, which is non-binding but could lead to independence. Should independence be declared, Iraq itself could be in jeopardy of fragmenting further.
Kirkuk, an ethically-mixed oil-rich province is not part of the Kurdistan region, but has a large Kurdish population.
In Tuesday’s vote, 22 of the 24 present councillors in the 41-member Kirkuk council voted in favour of holding the referendum, said councillor Hala Nur Eddine.
While Baghdad says Kirkuk is “administratively dependent” on Iraq’s central government, many Kurds – including the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which dominates political life in the province – demands the province’s incorporation into the Kurdish region.
Kirkuk’s Turkmen, for their part, oppose this, insisting that the ethnically-diverse province enjoys a “special status”.
Speaking to journalists afterwards, Kirkuk Governor Najm Eddine Karim described the vote as a “historic event”.
“We have the right to take part in the referendum, and whoever denies this knows nothing about human rights,” Kirkuk Governor Najmaldin Karim told reporters.
But a spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi denounced the vote as “illegal and unconstitutional”.
“Provinces that don’t belong to the autonomous region (of Kurdistan) can’t impose decisions without the federal government’s approval, and Kirkuk is one of these regions,” said Saad al-Hadithi.
Hasan Turan, a Turkmen lawmaker and vice-president of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, also blasted the council’s decision, describing it as “unconstitutional”.
The plans to hold the referendum have been criticised by neighbouring Turkey and Iran, which have large Kurdish minority populations.
The Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement that the Kirkuk’s council decision was “another link in a chain of mistakes” and “once more a serious violation of the Iraqi constitution”.
There are also doubts about the vote among the five million Iraqi Kurds, with some calling for it to be postponed.
The US has made the same demand, saying the referendum could distract from the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group by stoking tensions between the Kurds, and Arabs and Turkmen.
The Iraqi Kurdish region was created in 1992 and calls for independence have gained impetus following a 2003 US-led invasion, which toppled former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.