Amid the backdrop of a fight against the Islamic State, the Kurdistan region of Iraq plans to hold an important vote to determine its direction on statehood. Earlier this month, Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani announced that a long-awaited referendum on independence would be held Sept. 25, 2017. Importantly, the vote will not only take place within the borders of the Kurdistan region, but also within disputed territories that are now under de facto Kurdish control since their liberation from the Islamic State. Barzani has called for a referendum many times before, but this time an official date has been set and the vote will probably take place. An informal referendum passed overwhelmingly in the Kurdistan region in January 2005, and there is good reason to believe a positive result will be replicated in this year’s official process.
The referendum is not equivalent of a declaration of independence. Nor will it trigger any immediate change to the nature of Kurdish sovereignty in northern Iraq, as the vote has neither a legal framework to empower the referendum as a binding measure, nor support from the international community. The referendum will simply ask voters if they want an independent Kurdish state. However, the referendum is a way for Iraqi Kurds to signal their intention to pursue independence more aggressively in a post-Islamic State Iraq, and the vote will likely give Kurds more leverage in that process.
The referendum is also viewed as a way for the Kurds to help legitimize their hold on newly gained territory from the fight against the Islamic State. After nearly three years of war, the Kurdistan Region has gained control over many of the disputed territories in contention with the central government in Baghdad, most importantly the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.