The northern Iraqi city of Irbil, capital of the autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), grooved into an avid mood for independence months ago when KRG President Masoud Barzani announced that a referendum would be held on Sept. 25. As the historic day arrives, the Kurdish-dominated city is entirely emblazoned with Kurdistan flags.
One feels inundated as placards and banners in favor of the "yes" vote dominate the eye from the very first moment at the airport to the city center. Enthusiasm for independence outweighs skepticism in Irbil. The independence vote is the main subject of conversation in taxis, restaurants, coffee shops and on the streets. Iraqi Kurds believe it is their time. "We want independence. Plain and simple. We have waited for so long," said 42-year-old Heja Mustafa. That being said, it does not seem quite plain and simple for the KRG. Whatever the outcome may be in today's referendum, Iraqi Kurds will have a mountain to climb.
As the KRG's discontented neighbors Turkey and Iran as well as international powers such as the United States and the United Kingdom remain vehemently against the independence referendum, KRG President Barzani may be looking at a post-referendum era full of economic and political pressure both at home and abroad.
The Turkish government has long been calling on the KRG leader to call off the vote, which went unheeded as of Sept 25. Over the weekend, Ankara showed it means business as Parliament approved a military mandate for cross-border operations in Syria and Iraq. Moreover, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım asserted that Turkey knows very well how "to speak the language that Barzani understands."
Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli's tone on Saturday was not any milder. "The whole world knows that we are not bluffing. All kinds of decisions are on the table, which will be made when necessary," he said, underscoring that the referendum would put the security of the entire region in jeopardy.
Ankara has also warned Irbil that economic sanctions may be on the way if the referendum proceeds. Such sanctions, indeed, have the capacity to hurt the KRG. Imposing economic measures against the autonomous region could deal another blow to what has been a plummeting economy.
However, Iraqi Kurds sound adamant. "We, as Kurds, are used to poverty and tough life conditions. We are ready to handle the burden as long as we reach independence," said Hoşyar Ismail, the manager of a restaurant in Irbil.
"An independent Kurdish state has always been my dream, and I will never stop thinking about it until there is one," said another KRG citizen who asked to remain anonymous.
Iraqi Kurds proclaim that the people of the autonomous region are willing to face all the costs. In spite of the defiance many Kurds speak against what may arise after the referendum, many questions linger.
Ismail admitted that Arabs and Turks as well as Turkmens would stop visiting his restaurant following the referendum. "Our business is likely to go bust if tensions escalate further after independence is approved in the referendum," he says, "but I am for independence at all costs even though I am the manager here."
The people of the KRG appear to be stuck between emotions and raw reality. The Kurdish-populated region is already a de-facto independent state as the KRG possesses a well-armed and equipped army and makes its own political decisions as well as other advantages. Moreover, one hardly bumps into an Iraqi flag in any of the KRG cities, and the Iraqi central government has no presence at all in police and the army force in areas controlled by Barzani.
Despite the wide-ranging benefits of autonomous rule, Iraqi Kurds stress that they cannot get enough of it. "Look. I could give you my phone and say you can use it any way you like. Yet, I can take it back whenever I want. See. There is no difference," said Heja Mustafa in a bid to exemplify the current situation between Baghdad and Irbil.
Even if the KRG president were to prevail in
weathering the Turkish and Iranian storms knocking on the door, the Baghdad government would stand in the way forever as Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi puts it. "The referendum is rejected, whether today or in the future, in the Kurdistan region within the 2003 borders or in the disputed areas," the Iraqi prime minister said last week.
A "yes" outcome tonight may easily turn into days of hectic celebrations and eruption of excitement across the KRG, however, Irbil will need to sit at the table with Baghdad to complete the divorce, which could take years.
Ismail grows aware of the bumpy and icy road leading up to independence as the conversation goes on. "Our struggle for an independent Kurdish state will not end in success on Sept. 25. It will, in fact, embark on a new journey afterwards," he argued, indicating that exuberant Iraqi Kurds will continue to remain exposed to future costs stemming from the independence dream.