Facing opposition, Kurds make a new bid for independence

JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: Millions of Kurds in Northern Iraq went to the polls today to vote on whether to begin the process of creating their own nation, and separating from the rest of Iraq.

It's a vote opposed by governments in Baghdad, in Washington, in Tehran and elsewhere.

But as special correspondent Jane Ferguson reports, that's doing little to divert the Kurds from their goal.

JANE FERGUSON, Special Correspondent: Voting for a new country, a national identity for themselves, Farida Mamand wouldn't have missed it for anything.

You voted?

FARIDA MAMAND, Kurdish Iraqi Citizen: Yes, I did, finally.

JANE FERGUSON: How does it feel?

FARIDA MAMAND: Oh, it feels amazing. I'm so emotional. I have goose bumps all over my body. It's really so emotional, that I cannot describe into words.

JANE FERGUSON: Iraq's Kurds went to the polls to vote in a referendum asking: Do they want to remain a part of Iraq or break away as an independent nation of Kurds?

Farida's family live for Kurdish independence. They have been fighting and dying for it for generations. Her father is General Hussain Mamand, and he has been a proud member of the Kurdish armed forces, known as the Pesh Merga, most of his life, just like his father before him.

GEN. HUSSAIN MAMAND, Commander, Pesh Merga (through interpreter): I joined the Peshmerga in 1965, when our leaders led us in a revolution for our freedom. The government in Baghdad was bombing the Kurdish people, bombing our villages.

JANE FERGUSON: His leader back then was Mustafa Barzani. Now it's Mustafa's son, Masoud Barzani, who is leader of Iraqi Kurdistan.

MASSOUD BARZANI, President, Kurdistan Regional Government (through interpreter): After the referendum, we are ready to start the process of dialogue with Baghdad. We are never, ever going back to Baghdad to renegotiate the failed partnership that we had in the past.

JANE FERGUSON: The vote is not binding, and Kurdish leaders will not declare independence immediately or even soon afterwards. Instead, it is meant to give them a stronger mandate for negotiating a breakup with Baghdad.

The Kurds are the largest ethnic group in the world without a state. Excluded when European powers carved up the Middle East in the 1920s after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Kurds were divided between Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Iraq.

Those in Northern Iraq have not stopped fighting for their independence ever since. Over the years, that struggle has cost them dearly. Saddam Hussein was their worst enemy. After an uprising against his regime in Baghdad in the 1980s, he shocked the world by using chemical weapons against Kurdish civilians.

In 1988, the people of Halabja town were gassed, massacring thousands of Kurdish men, women and children. The horror of those times has never been forgotten here.

GEN. HUSSAIN MAMAND (through interpreter): In the '80s, there were chemical weapons used against the Kurds. The Kurds were given even more reason to fight for our rights.

JANE FERGUSON: That fight cost General Mamand and his family dearly. His 27-year-old son, Abdullah, was killed fighting the terror group.

GEN. HUSSAIN MAMAND (through interpreter): From Bashiqa, they were heading into Mosul. He was wounded twice by gunfire and a suicide bomber. He wasn't alone. A couple of others were killed too.

JANE FERGUSON: The Trump administration has pushed the Kurdish leaders to cancel the independence referendum. They say breaking apart Iraq is too destabilizing for the region.

Brett McGurk is the top U.S. envoy to the coalition fighting ISIS, and has been working in Iraq for over a decade.

BRETT MCGURK, Special Presidential Envoy: The referendum, to get to your question, just carries an awful lot of risks. And that's not something that — that's not something the United States can control.

JANE FERGUSON: Kurds here know they will have to go it alone for now.

GEN. HUSSAIN MAMAND (through interpreter): We are disappointed with the Americans now, but I hope this will not last. I hope they understand that the Kurds are only fighting for their rights, nothing else.

JANE FERGUSON: In the capital of Iraq's Kurdish region, Irbil, there is growing excitement about the latest independence bid.

It would be difficult to find anybody in a market like this who doesn't support the referendum and independence. But beyond Kurdistan's boundaries, anger is growing.

Neighboring countries Turkey, Syria and Iran are threatening military action if more moves towards independence are made. They are afraid the Kurdish minorities in their own countries could start agitating for independence too.

Those are not baseless fears. In a cafe in Irbil, a group of Kurds originally from Turkey and now living in Europe have gathered. They traveled here just to witness the historic vote and show support. They are not Iraqi citizens, so cannot vote, but, to them, a Kurd is a Kurd.

AZAD LORDENI, Turkish Kurd (through interpreter): We don't say we are from Kurdish Turkey, or Kurdish Iran or Kurdish Syria. We say we are from Northern Kurdistan or Eastern Kurdistan or Western Kurdistan. We are from Kurdistan.

JANE FERGUSON: To these men, the issue of U.S. opposition to the referendum is just a case of political necessity, for now.

Professor Dlawer Ala'Aldeen heads up the Middle East Research Institute in Irbil.

DLAWEER ALA'ALDEEN, Middle East Research Institute, Erbil: Now, when the current administration says don't do it, this has not translated into people feeling abandoned or bitter about it. People still love America.

But what they expect is that, after the referendum, and if they enable this process of independence, they expect that understanding from America, that there will be more friends supporting this move and trying to calm things down.

JANE FERGUSON: Baghdad angrily rejects the referendum, and the inclusion of disputed areas like Kirkuk City in the proposed future Kurdish country hasn't helped.

Kirkuk is home to an ethnic mix of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen. It also holds great oil wealth, and Baghdad will not give it up easily.

HAIDER AL ABADI, Prime Minister, Iraq (through interpreter): We will not relinquish our Kurdish people. We have rejected a sectarian and racist state. Iraq will remain for all Iraqis. And we do not allow anyone to do what he likes without bearing consequences.

JANE FERGUSON: That hasn't frightened those in the Mamand family, who all showed up excited to vote. Farida's mother, Aisha, was overcome with emotion, voting for the creation of a country her son has already died for.

Whatever the result of the referendum, negotiating for independence afterwards will be fraught with difficulty and the threat of violence from all sides.

Despite the peaceful vote, more blood may be shed before the Kurds ever win their own country.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jane Ferguson in Irbil, Iraq.

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