In Hewlêr

Tom Stevenson

Almost everyone who lives in the city known to the rest of the world as Erbil calls it by its Kurdish name: Hewlêr. The Kurds in what is now Iraq – like the Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Iran – have for decades been administered by a state that few of them think of as their own. The independence referendum held last month in Iraqi Kurdistan delivered the result everyone expected: 92.7 per cent of the population answered ‘yes’ to the question (posed in Kurdish, Arabic, Turkmen and Assyrian) ‘Do you want the Kurdistan Region and the Kurdistani areas outside the administration of the Region to become an independent state?’ Their hope is that we will all start using Hewlêr instead of Erbil before long.

In the run-up to the vote the Kurdish flag (red, white and green with a yellow sun) was everywhere in the city: hung from bridges, decking the sides of apartment buildings, draped over speed cameras. At night, convoys of cars with flag-waving children hanging out of the windows and poking up through the sunroofs made the streets impassable. Young men dancing blocked the main roads until the early hours; fireworks and the constant braying of car horns accompanied the revelry. In Slemani province, in the east of the region, a small group staged a premature – and quite unwise – ceremonial burning of their Iraqi ID cards.

The Kurdistan region has not been spared the economic strains brought on by the civil war in Syria, the fight against IS, and Iraq’s general disintegration. The referendum result was helped by the fact that for the last three years Baghdad hasn’t disbursed the 17 per cent of the federal budget that the Kurdistan Regional Government is supposed to receive. Public sector salaries have dried up and Hewlêr, the regional capital, has seen better days. In the middle of one of its central junctions there is a stone monument of a horse and plough in such bad repair that it looks like a part from a vandalised merry-go-round. Construction projects on the outskirts lie half-finished. By and large people blame Baghdad.

The day before the vote I drove to Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan’s third largest city, via Akre, crossing the Great Zab river. This is the long way round, but at present the only way: the direct route passes through Mosul, which is controlled by the Iraqi army. In Dohuk, with eight hours to go before the polls opened, the celebrations had already begun; the city was gripped by independence mania, and the size of the gatherings dwarfed even the large rallies earlier in the campaign. Most men wore the traditional khak and women were dressed in their finest robes. ‘We’ve spilled enough blood fighting IS to deserve this’ was a popular line. It was ‘a special day’, ‘holy’, ‘the most important day of my life’. Birth metaphors were common and elaborate: the birth of a new state would be a ‘wonder of nature’ or ‘painful but beautiful’. A 63-year-old who had just voted told me it felt ‘like the first time I’ve ever seen light; as though until now it was night and now I have seen the day for the first time’.

As I moved around the region in the days before the vote, there had been little sign of a ‘no’ campaign. No faction of any size is against independence. But I did come across a crowd round a young man in Hewlêr’s main square who was making the case for ‘no’. He argued that Masoud Barzani, the region’s president, and his clan had dictatorial tendencies; he also suggested that the territorial integrity of Iraq had to be maintained. That argument is an uphill climb anywhere in the remains of Saddam’s republic, but in Kurdistan on the eve of the referendum it was wildly ambitious. The man received a fair hearing even so, and left with no more than a few incredulous looks. Unlike the referendum in Catalonia, the vote was almost entirely free of violence: the Kurdish regions of Iraq are under the control of the Peshmerga (the de facto Kurdish army) and inaccessible to the Iraqi military.

In the eyes of many Kurds the opportunity to vote for independence was a prize won through a hundred years of suffering. The modern history of Başûr, or South Kurdistan, is a record of crimes and humiliations that exceeds the indignities visited on the Kurds in Turkey. The Anfal genocide of the 1980s, in which Saddam’s regime killed 100,000 or more Kurds, and the gas attack on Halabja are well known. Less so are the suppression of countless earlier independence revolts, the razing of villages, the campaigns of population transfer and the systematic stifling of Kurdish culture. In the 1970s in Sinjar province, during a campaign against the Kurdish language, the state forced all Kurdish-speaking residents to take Arabic names. Inhabitants of the towns had to queue up at the governorate to choose new names from an approved list. Since 2003 there have been changes – the KRG has had more autonomy; a Kurd has held the symbolic presidency of Iraq – but the prejudices of the Baathist state survive. Above all, few Kurds consider themselves to be Iraqi. ‘We are not the same, there is just nothing the same between us and them,’ one young man told me. ‘They shunned us, denied us, hated us, killed us.’

For Barzani and his Kurdistan Democratic Party the referendum has been a gamble. Barzani had violated the constitution by overstaying his term as president of the KRG by two years and his position was starting to look tenuous. Now his star is briefly in the ascendant and his political opponents have been left scrambling. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, led until his death on 3 October by Jalal Talabani, which has governed as part of an uneasy and dysfunctional coalition with the KDP, and the opposition Gorran Movement, which runs on an anti-corruption platform, seemed to see they were being played but could hardly come out against independence. Both the PUK and Gorran pushed for a postponement of the referendum before backing a ‘yes’ vote at the last minute. When I visited the PUK headquarters (a palatial folly that resembles the White House and is crowded with servants and security guards in suits) the head of the party’s political office, Baxtiyar Kawani, admitted that the referendum had confounded the PUK. ‘It may be a masterstroke by Barzani,’ Kawani said. ‘He is a good man but he is also a politician and it is not right the way he has clung on to the presidency.’

The Barzani family has been at the centre of Kurdish resistance to the Iraqi state since the 1920s, and there is more than a touch of noblesse oblige in its behaviour. Barzani is, after all, an agha, a hereditary feudal lord. The Barzani administration is by nature nepotistic. Masoud’s nephew Nechirvan is the prime minister of the KRG and his son Masrour is chancellor of the security council. In Kurdistan there is scarcely a building without a poster of one Barzani or another and to open the right doors one often needs to know a member of the clan. Before the vote the family was beginning to look like any other ruling dynasty in control of a petroleum statelet. Now Barzani can cast himself as the man finally leading the way towards an independent Kurdistan.

One trouble is that not everyone agrees on where should be included. The referendum was held not only in areas like Hewlêr, Slemani and Dohuk, which are unambiguously Kurdish, but in disputed territories such as Kirkuk, Diyala and the Nineveh plain. Baghdad is unlikely to yield up Kirkuk in particular (‘the oily bit’, as one man termed it) without a fight. The KRG took control of Kirkuk in 2014 when the Iraqi army fled from IS. While the population is majority Kurdish the province has large Arab and Turkmen minorities whose representatives boycotted the local council vote authorising the referendum. Without exception, the Kurdish leaders I met insisted there could be no state without Kirkuk and few are willing to contemplate any kind of compromise. The Hashd ash-Shaabi, an Iraqi paramilitary force backed by Iran, is now deploying around Kirkuk and there is a real prospect of armed conflict. On the day of the vote a Peshmerga was killed in a scuffle with the Hashd and a night-time curfew was declared in the city. The Peshmerga themselves talk, perhaps unsurprisingly for military men, of being ready for a fight. ‘We’re trying to build something here and in Kirkuk that is for Kurds and for all the peoples and religions who live in this land,’ Colonel Dilshad Mawlud Ahmed, a Peshmerga commander, told me when we met at Peshmerga general command west of Hewlêr. ‘We would prefer to have that freedom peacefully. We don’t want a war, but if our neighbours do we are ready. Whether it’s the Iraqi army, the Hashd, IS or anyone else.’

The referendum result leaves no room for doubt that Kurds in Iraq want independence, and on that basis alone they ought to have it. But what would an independent Kurdistan be like? The desire for independence is premised on race, cultural identity, history and language rather than political principle, and the new state would risk conflating citizenship and ethnicity. That would be another disaster for minorities in the region. It was the mistake that haunted the emergence of modern Turkey in the 1920s, leading to the oppression of Kurds and an aggressive Turkish nationalism that persists today. Kurdish intellectuals are too blithe about this prospect. They argue that the Kurds have an ingrained respect for minorities, but either side of the referendum I heard enough rough talk about Arabs to doubt this. Dr Lezgin Chali, Barzani’s personal physician and a prolific translator (anything from technical texts on anaemia to works of philosophy, linguistics and psychoanalysis) said there was every chance of avoiding the Turkish path. ‘The problems we have here are not analogous to Scotland or Catalonia,’ he added. ‘The extent of the historic and recent violence we’ve faced is simply unimaginable in a modern European context. But despite this an independent Kurdistan is taking shape peacefully.’

That’s an optimistic view. Iran, Turkey and the Iraqi government have other ideas. Iraq’s vice-president, Nouri al-Maliki, has called the vote a ‘declaration of war on the unity of Iraq’, and the Iraqi parliament has approved sending troops to Kirkuk. Baghdad has succeeded in closing Erbil International Airport to international flights and with Turkey and Iran’s help there are the makings of a blockade. Iran is tied in to a network of powerful militias within Iraq, and Turkey already conducts regular airstrikes on Kurdish positions in Iraq. Erdoğan might well remind the Kurdish leadership how precarious its geopolitical position is by cutting off the Kirkuk-Ceyhan pipeline, through which the Kurdish authorities export their oil and collect their only real revenue. The referendum has been disparaged by some outsiders as an opinion poll because it isn’t legally binding, but the population believed they were enacting independence by the vote and they will demand a dénouement. The greater problem is the four states in which the Kurds live, whose regimes are united in opposing Kurdish independence. The US, for its part, sees nothing to be gained from Kurdish independence. Washington’s priority is to rebuild a client state in Iraq in the service of ‘stability’. But Barzani’s response to this is unarguable: ‘When have we ever had stability, that we should care to lose it?’

6 October