On Monday, Iraqi Kurds are heading to the polls to vote on a referendum for independence. Much of the controversy surrounding the referendum revolves around Iraqi Kurdistan de facto President Massoud Barzani's decision not only in Iraq's three northern provinces administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government, but also to include areas under dispute with the federal government in Baghdad: Kirkuk, parts of Diyala, and areas in and around Mosul.
Kurdish leaders have long argued that Kurdistan welcomes ethnic and religious diversity; many ethnic and religious minorities disagree. While Christians are free to worship in Iraqi Kurdistan, the region's authoritarian turn limits both their ability to express themselves politically and, because many Christians eschew the dominant Kurdish political parties, also undercuts job prospects in a region where the government is the largest employer and allocates 80 percent of its budget to civil servant salaries.
Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani has argued that the Kurds cannot trust the outside world and so must have independence: "Every Kurd around the world shook with fear and indignation at the predicament of our brothers and sisters on the top of Mount Sinjar in 2014. The wounds of past persecution and genocide are fresh in our hearts and minds," he declares.
What Talabani omits is that Barzani cynically joined hands with Saddam Hussein eight years after the 1988 genocide simply to prevent Kurdish political rivals from gaining power, and that the Yezidis do not trust the administration Talabani serves because it refused not only to defend them against the rise of the Islamic State, but also to allow them the means to defend themselves. When Yezidis have had a choice, all but a few quislings organized and paid for by Barzani have turned their backs to the Kurdistan Regional Government, demanding instead their own province or state. Many Christians in the Ninewa plains feel likewise. Certainly they were victimized by the Islamic State, but they were also looted by the Kurdish peshmerga. By the logic Talabani espouses, shouldn't they be able to take their fate into their own hands?
The question isn't merely rhetorical. If the Kurds establish a precedent by holding their referendum in disputed regions, and if Talabani declares the KRG's actions consistent with international law, it is likely that Yezidis around Mount Sinjar and Christians in the Ninewa plains will cite his arguments when they demand their own vote and seek to hold it whether or not the KRG approves.
The Kurds may want to take their own fate into their hands but the second- and third-order effects the referendum initiates will be formidable. Get ready for the Christian and Yezidi referenda; both quietly and quickly, Christian and Yezidi activists are.