Iraqi Kurdish officials announced Wednesday that Kurds in Iraq's autonomous northern region will hold a referendum on independence on Sept. 25.
Masoud Barzani, the president of the Iraqi Kurdish regional government, announced the vote on Twitter. Hamin Hawrami, a senior presidential adviser, said on his own Twitter account that the decision follows a meeting of the major Kurdish political parties in Irbil, the region's capital.
The referendum on whether to secede from Iraq will be held in the three governorates that make up the Kurdish region and in the areas that are disputed by the Kurdish and Iraqi governments but are currently under Kurdish military control.
It is not clear whether a “yes” vote, which is expected to be the result, will lead to the declaration of independence. The Iraqi government has so far not reacted to the announcement. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in April that he respects the Kurdish right to vote on independence, but he did not think the timing was right for the move.
Relationship with Baghdad strained
Iraq's Kurdish region, with a population of about 5 million, already enjoys a high degree of autonomy, including its own parliament and armed forces. But relations with the central government in Baghdad have nosedived in recent years over a range of issues. These include the sharing of oil revenues and the control of some areas that are technically part of federal Iraq but have come under Kurdish control since 2014 during the war against the Islamic State group.
Neighboring states like Turkey, Syria and Iran that all have large and sometimes restive Kurdish populations have in the past resisted moves towards Kurdish independence. Turkey in particular is strongly suspicious of Kurdish ambitions and sent its own troops into Syria in part to shrink the territorial gains of a U.S.-backed predominantly Kurdish militia that is battling the Islamic State group. Turkey regards its own local Kurdish political movement as a terrorist organization.
Under US protection
Since Iraq's founding, its Kurds have always had a difficult relationship with the central government; a series of revolts have either been crushed, sometimes with great brutality, or ended in unsatisfactory compromises. Since the Gulf War in 1991, the region has enjoyed de facto autonomy under U.S. protection and seen significant economic development largely due to its oil and gas reserves and strong trade links with Turkey.
Relations with the Iraqi government have been difficult since a revenue-sharing agreement over the country's oil resources collapsed in 2015. IS militants routed the Iraqi security forces and took control of much of the country's north in 2014. Since then Kurdish Peshmerga forces have retaken large chunks of IS-held territory, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, leading to more tensions with Baghdad.