On Monday, September 25th, the Kurdish people of northern Iraq will vote on a highly controversial referendum on whether to secede from the Republic of Iraq and create their own independent state. It is expected to pass overwhelmingly. But then what?
Marsoud Barzani, the Kurdish president, laid out the case in a June 28th op-ed in the Washington Post, “The time has come for Iraqi Kurdistan to make its choice on independence.”
Most world governments, however, oppose the referendum. They see the move by the Sunni Muslims of the Kurdistan province as ill-timed and needlessly complicating an already highly volatile geopolitical situation in the Middle East. Especially adamant against the move are the Shia leaders in Baghdad and Tehran, as well as the Turkish government, which hates the Kurds with a vengeance.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration also opposes the referendum, or at least its timing. This is a mistake. The Kurds deserve their freedom now.
- The Kurds were promised a state of their own after World War I by the Western allies who had defeated the Ottoman Empire — but those promises were never kept.
- Since then, the Kurds have suffered genocide under Saddam Hussein and numerous atrocities by other regional despots.
- Along the way, the Kurds have proven themselves staunch and faithful allies of the U.S. and the West.
- They helped us fight and defeat Saddam Hussein in the 2003 war. [see a detailed account in Bob Woodward’s book, Plan of Attack: The Definitive Account of the Decision to Invade Iraq and subsequent books by Woodward on the war.]
- They have helped the West effectively fight the Islamic State in Iraq.
- They have helped the West effectively fight the Islamic State in Syria.
- They have welcomed thousands of Iraqi Christians, Yazidis and other minorities when they were fleeing from ISIS genocide.
- They have built a growing economy and a stable, functioning, pluralistic and imperfect but reasonably democratic society.
- They were promised a real partnership in a democratic, pluralistic Iraqi government, but those promises failed to materialize, as well.
- What’s more, they have close and long-standing commercial and intelligence ties to, and warm relations with, the State of Israel [Israel is the only government that has openly supported Kurdish independence] and can be an ally in Middle East peace-making.
I have had the honor of visiting the Kurdish province in northern Iraq four times. Over the years, I have met with Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani (who was the Kurdish representative in D.C. at the time), a range of other Kurdish government officials, and Christian pastors and ministry leaders in Kurdistan. I have been moved by their history, have fallen in love with their people — especially the children — and have been praying for the people and leaders ever since.
- In 1988, Saddam Hussein launched massive military attacks against the Kurdish people “that killed at least 50,000 civilians and destroyed thousands of villages,” reported the New York Times.
- Throughout the 1980s, it has been alleged that that as many as 180,000 Kurds were killed by Saddam’s forces.
- On March 16th, 1988, Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against the Kurds, barbarically killing some 5,000 Kurdish men, women and children with poison gas.
- [For this, Saddam Hussein was ultimately charged with genocide against the Kurds, after U.S. forces liberated Iraq in 2003 and captured the Iraqi tyrant. Saddam was ultimately convicted and hanged for these crimes, among others.]
- When the U.S. led an international coalition to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991, President George H.W. Bush called on the Iraqi people to rise up and overthrow the Butcher of Baghdad.
- “There’s another way for the bloodshed to stop, and this is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside,” said President Bush (41).
- The Kurds responded to the call, but when Saddam launched a counter attack the Bush administration refused to help the Kurds.
- “In a written statement issued from their headquarters in northern Iraq, Kurdish rebel leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani appealed to Bush to use American military force to prevent the Iraqi army from employing its tanks, artillery and aircraft to put down the rebellion,” reported the Los Angeles Times. “You personally called upon the Iraqi people to rise up against Saddam Hussein’s brutal dictatorship,” the Kurds said. “They have now risen and are confronting the might of Saddam’s tyranny.”
The referendum the Kurds have drafted is not perfect. Indeed, in some ways it is overreaching. And yes, it will complicate diplomatic matters in the region. Rather than oppose it, however, the U.S. and Western powers should be working with the Kurds and regional leaders to negotiate a peaceful and reasonable conclusion, one that gives the Kurds their independence but ensures they are cooperating partners in the region’s security and economy.
The Kurds have been patient for the better part of a century, while the world continues to cut them loose. Enough is enough. It is time to support their bid for self-determination. If not now, then when?
The column expresses my own personal opinions. It does not reflect the views of The Joshua Fund, which is a non-political organization, and takes no position on legislative or political issues in the U.S. or other countries.
(Top photos: Meeting with Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani in Erbil.)
- See also excellent column by Eli Lake, “Iraq’s Kurds Have Earned Their Right to Independence — The U.S. should offer full-throated support, not a quibble over timing.”
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