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News Analysis |

Amid rising tensions and intense international opposition, Kurds in the autonomous region of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq in an independence referendum. The polls opened Monday morning in the disputed areas between the northern city of Erbil and the capital Baghdad, as well as the ethnically-mixed oil-rich province of Kirkuk. The results of the non-binding referendum will be announced on Tuesday.

Will an independent Kurdistan use oil to increase its clout in the region? This factor is likely to impede Kurd independence in the near future but it remains to be seen if virulent nationalism overrides opposition

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq set September 25 as the date for a referendum on Kurdish independence, something which went unnoticed. The government in Baghdad sought control of the area’s border posts and airports ahead of the polls.

The Iraqi government has urged all foreign countries to stop importing oil from Kurdistan. “This is an unconstitutional decision against the social fabric of our citizens. We will not recognize the referendum, nor its results. We will take follow-up steps to protect the unity of the country and the interests of every citizen living in a unified Iraq,” said Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi.

Read more: The Kurdish Kaleidoscope

Pandering to the sentiments of the Kurds throughout Iraq, President of KRG, Masoud Barzani endorsed his decision to conduct the referendum. History vouches that charged up nationalists stop at nothing less than their quest for freedom. He asked: “Is it a crime to ask people in Kurdistan to express in a democratic way what they want to have for the future?”

Iran’s backing of Iraq in the poll may be seen differently by the US and Israel. Despite US opposition to the poll, it has long supported Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the fight against the Islamic State

However, Barzani was open for talks to deal with the aftermath of the poll. He said: “If we have a constructive dialogue, then we can give it, even more, time, in order to secure better relations between the Kurds and Baghdad.”

5.6 million voters will be asked: “Do you want the Kurdistan region and Kurdish areas outside the region to become an independent state?” The upbeat voting process will most probably translate into an overwhelmingly affirmative answer to the poll question.

However, tensions are likely to simmer. Apart from Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria have opposed the referendum vociferously. Iran closed its border with Northern Iraq. “At the request of Iraq, we have closed the airspace and ground borders with the Kurdish Regional Government,” foreign ministry spokesman Behram Qasimi said at a news conference in Tehran.

Read more: Kurdish aspirations in the wake of changing US foreign policy

Besides, Iran also halted flight operations in Kurdistan. Iran’s backing of Iraq in the poll may be seen differently by the US and Israel. Despite US opposition to the poll, it has long supported Kurdish Peshmerga forces in the fight against the Islamic State. While Israel has voiced support for the referendum, something which has kept US’ opposition a tad nuanced. If anything, the overt opposition of Iran may open up yet another Israel-Iran-US front especially as ties between Tehran and the US are at the lower ebb.

Pandering to the sentiments of the Kurds throughout Iraq, President of KRG, Masoud Barzani endorsed his decision to conduct the referendum. History vouches that charged up nationalists stop at nothing less than their quest for freedom

Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said: “After this, let’s see through which channels the northern Iraqi regional government will send its oil, or where it will sell it.We have the tap. The moment we close the tap, then it’s done.” Kurdistan exports plenty of oil barrels to Turkey daily, thus giving the region a geopolitical significance one which can stoke tensions.

Read more: How Kurdish hopes became Turkey’s fears

The referendum is likely to flare up tensions in the region. The KRG currently controls 20% of Iraq’s oil resources. If it pushes for independence it could become an oil power to be reckoned with. Will an independent Kurdistan use oil to increase its clout in the region? This factor is likely to impede Kurd independence in the near future but it remains to be seen if virulent nationalism overrides opposition. However, if anything, Middle East will see another or rather a series of fronts opening up in the days to come.

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