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On the Ground in Iraqi Kurdistan

Erbil, Kurdistan, October 2017

By Ben Priest


Ben Priest is a graduate student working on Kurdistan and Kurdish nationalism. He is currently in Erbil, Iraq, where there has been unrest as a result of a referendum on independence, conducting dissertation research. The following is a brief summary of his experiences to date.


I’m a PhD candidate in the Islamic Studies program living in Erbil/Hawler, which is the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. My dissertation topic is Kurdish Nationalism and Islam, and I’m here to collect data as well as continue my studies in the local languages. Some people get very confused about why I picked Kurdistan, generally considered more secular than its neighbors, as a place to study Islam. My reply to that is that there’s more than meets the eye. Much more, as a matter of fact.


The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is an autonomous federal region in the north of Iraq. On September 25th, they held a referendum for independence. This vote took place throughout the KRG provinces as well as portions of disputed territories within three Iraqi provinces. The drive for independence has its roots in Iraq’s creation. The Treaty of Sèvres, which dissolved the Ottoman Empire, promised territory for a Kurdish state. However, this treaty was abnegated following the Turkish war for independence, which gave way to the Treaty of Lausanne. This treaty split the Kurdish regions within the former Ottoman Empire into eastern Turkey, northern Greater Syria, and northern Iraq. The British and French founded Iraq in 1922 by combining three Ottoman regions – Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra. Within these are at least 19 distinct ethnic and religious groups, many having their own languages, customs, and view of history. This was complicated further when in 1927 a concession to the Turkish Petroleum Company led to the discovery that Iraq was “cursed with the blessing of oil.”


Fast-forward ninety years of coups, wars, politics, and “aggressive gerrymandering” until we land in the present.


The referendum came.


The city was draped in the Kurdish flag, maps of greater Kurdistan and various iterations of Kurdish Iraq, and portraits of President Masoud Barzani. Rudaw, a Kurdish news outlet, posted an interactive online map showing the vote counts for each of the territories, including those under dispute, listed with their Kurdish names. Fireworks were routine and the biggest danger was getting run over by an overly zealous party-goer. Every taxi driver I spoke with very nearly brimmed over with hope. The referendum, in Erbil at least, felt like an unstoppable ocean of Kurdish will.


The referendum went.


Peshmerga were called out to start fortifying areas in disputed territories. The fireworks stopped. Rudaw changed the titles of the disputed territories to reflect their Iraqi names, stopped showing vote tallies, then took down the interactive map altogether. My taxi drivers sounded less certain by the day.


Fast-forward to October 17. Kirkuk has been taken in what we can only surmise to be a backroom deal between the Iranian Quds commander and elements of the PUK (Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, a political group also jostling for power in the region). The night previous, my roommate and I debated whether or not things would be more solid in Sulaimaniyah/Slemani.


Both of us were awakened at 4am by the staccato chop of machine gun fire.

Who’s shooting? How’d they make it up here so fast? Did Baghdad take the airport?


Turns out it was Peshmerga shooting into the air, celebrating the Ḥashd al-Shaʿabī’s vacating several positions in Kirkuk.


Fast-forward to today.


Ḥashd al-Shaʿabī is fighting Peshmerga forty-five minutes south of Erbil/Hawler. Many Peshmerga units are reporting that they’ve run out ammunition. I laugh to myself at the memory of those wasted bullets celebrating a maneuver that was in fact an assaulting army regrouping its forces for the beginning of another chapter that is far from being finished.