A pair of rusted eyeglasses, a grimy antique watch, torn bank notes and old identification cards. These simple items on display at a museum here in northern Iraq, dug from a mass grave of Kurdish tribesmen massacred by Saddam Hussein’s henchmen, help explain why there is little doubt about how Kurds will vote in a referendum this month on independence from Iraq. “How could the international community expect us to be part of Iraq after these crimes?” said Khalat Barzani, who is in charge of the museum that memorializes the deportation and killings of thousands of Kurds in 1983. Even if the outcome is a forgone conclusion — nearly every Kurd holds dear the dream of statehood — the vote in Iraqi Kurdistan represents a historic moment in the Kurds’ generations-long struggle for political independence.
Numbering about 30 million people spread across four countries – Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran – the Kurds are often described as the world’s largest ethnic group without their own homeland. Iraqi Kurdistan, an oil-rich enclave in northern Iraq, may be their best hope yet.
The referendum’s approval would start the process of turning the autonomous region into an independent state. But outside of Kurdistan, every major player in the neighborhood opposes the vote, which could break up Iraq and further destabilize a volatile, war-torn region.
Baghdad has indicated that it would not recognize the results. Across the border in Turkey, officials worry that Kurds declaring independence in Iraq would inflame the separatist sentiments of Kurds in Turkey. Turkey has opposed the referendum and warned that it could lead to a new civil war in Iraq.