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In Iraq, minorities pin hopes on a Kurdish state

Judit Neurink Irbil
September 26, 2017

Iraqi minorities have been voting for an independent Kurdish state in a bid for stability and peace. A Kurdish passport and nationality could improve their situation, they believe. Judit Neurink reports from Irbil, Iraq.

Irbil in Iraq
Image: DW/J. Neurink

Disappointment with the Iraqi government and loyalty to the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, which took them in when the terror group "Islamic State" deprived them of their homes and livelihoods, has led many Iraqi minorities to support the Kurdish push for independence. When the Kurds voted on Monday on secession from Iraq, they included not only the minorities in their own region, but also those in the lands beyond it which they are claiming for their new state.

Read more: What is the Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum? 

"This is now our community," says Inaam Tomea, 45, showing her blue inked finger after voting. She is from the Christian city of Qaraqosh, on the Nineveh Plains, which IS took over in August 2014 and which the Kurdistan Region wants to be part of its future state. Most of its inhabitants fled to Kurdistan and to camps set up in Ainkawa, the Christian enclave of the Kurdish capital, Irbil.

A polling station was set up in one of them, Ashti-2, where the internally displaced can vote if their Iraqi ID shows that they are from what the Kurds call 'Kurdistani' areas. These are lands that both the Kurds and Baghdad want to control whose status should, according to the Iraqi constitution, have been settled 10 years ago. The fact that the referendum included these disputed territories — areas where Christian, Shabak, Turkmen and Yazidi minorities live — is a main reason for Iraqi and international anger about the vote.

Around 100,000 Christians have spent the last three years in camps and rented houses in Ainkawa, and Tomea is one of them. Because of the welcome they received, she admits: "We feel obliged to vote." Samira Dadoo, 51, — who, like Tomea, voted 'yes' — explains: "The Kurds have been good to us over the past three years."

Almost a year after the Christian towns were recaptured from IS, the caravans of Ashti-2 are finally emptying. The schools have reopened back home, and families are moving there, after cleaning and repairing their damaged and often burnt-out houses. But there is still fear. "We are afraid to go back," Dadoo says. "What will it be like in the years to come? Will the same scenario repeat itself? Will there be another IS?"

Read more: The Middle East's complex Kurdish landscape

Both women hope that an independent Kurdistan can bring them stability and peace. And even though they are moving back, they would prefer to stay: "It is better here," says Dadoo. "We lost hope there."

Fears of a backlash

While a large majority of Kurds and minorities voted, the referendum has met with hostile reactions from Iraq's neighbors and Baghdad, plus threats of military action in the disputed areas and economic sanctions that could bring hardship to the landlocked Region. After voting, four young people originally from the Christian city of Bartella admit they are scared by the reports about threats they see on social media. Although he voted 'yes', one of them predicts that nothing — including independence — will really happen: "They won't allow it, and we will be hit by high prices."

A map showing where Kurds live in the Middle East

First-time voter Hanin Hamid, 20, puts on a brave face. "I have to trust the Kurds to protect me," she says, admitting that it was because the Kurdish peshmerga forces withdrew from their towns that IS was able to take over in 2014. "I hope they will not forsake us again. I am giving them another chance."

When asked if she is looking forward to having a Kurdish passport and nationality, she pauses, then smiles. "Yes, our situation under Kurdish rule will be much better than it is as part of Iraq." Her resistance to the Iraqi government, which is led by Shiites and closely linked to Iran, is echoed by other minorities.

These include the Shabak, a small ethno-religious group in the north of Iraq to which the brothers Omar and Abdelamir Haider belong. They are from Telkef, near Iraq's second city Mosul. Both are truck drivers and they find the prospect of a better standard of living just as important as the security and peace they expect from the new state. "Our case is like that of the Kurds; the Iraqi government did nothing for us," says Omar. His brother adds: "Since Saddam, we have been persecuted. Even before IS came, we had no rights in Mosul."

Communities split

For some minorities, like the Christians, one reason for their support of Kurdistan is the expectation that the new state will grant them their own governorate, a dream shared by many since the violence in Iraq spiraled after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. Kak Yousef, a Christian communist living in the Ainkawa enclave, explains: "This is the way to get our own province within Kurdistan, so there will be no more discrimination. We have to do it!"

A sign in front of a polling station underlines than weapons are prohibited
No guns or knives were allowed at voting stationsImage: DW/J. Neurink

Yet some Christian organizations, mainly of Iraqi Christians in the West, are passionately opposed to this option. They only want a Christian province within Iraq, while some of those living in Ainkawa don't want a province at all; they want just to be part of Kurdistan. The issue has split the Christian community in Iraq. Kak Yousif believes those who do not want to be part of a Kurdish state feel that way because of bad experiences in the past. "They are disappointed, as they could not reach an understanding about their rights. They do not believe the Kurds will really give them their province."

There is resistance to the Kurdish push for independence from Turkmen organizations, too, mostly in the disputed city of Kirkuk. They passionately oppose it, claiming the oil-rich city as Turkmen. Some also want their own region, though this would include land that is already part of the Kurdistan Region or disputed territories.

The Yazidi minority — seen by many as the original Kurds before the arrival of Islam in the area — is just as split as the Christian community, with many Yazidi who settled in recent decades in what would become the Kurdistan Region supporting the Region's ruling KDP and PUK parties. But most of the over 50,000 Yazidis who fled the disputed province of Sinjar when IS came in August 2014 are angry that the Kurds did not protect them then, allowing IS to kidnap and kill thousands of their brethren.

Voters queued in the Christian Ashti-2 camp
Thousands of IDPs from disputed areas were able to vote in a school in the Christian Ashti-2 campImage: DW/J. Neurink

Since then, they have been living in camps in the Kurdistan Region. Many of them, fearing that the referendum would lead to war between the Iraqis and the Kurds, have left for Sinjar in recent weeks, even though the region has still to be cleared of explosives and is considered politically volatile. Some who stayed but supported a 'no' vote have reported being intimidated into voting 'yes' with threats of eviction from the camps.

The Yazidis are as split over whether their province should become part of a Kurdish state as the Christians, even though they too have been the recipients of Kurdish hospitality in recent years. The official discourse of the Kurdish government is that it welcomes all minorities, and that it wants to take over the role of their protector — a role Iraq played before the explosion of sectarian violence. While many are ready to place their fate in Kurdish hands, others have been disappointed too often in the past to be willing or able to trust in this promise now.