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Kurds’ Risky Dream of Independence

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Safin Hamed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

After yearning for independence for generations, Kurds in Iraq are scheduled to take a major step in that direction with a nonbinding referendum set for Sept. 25. The vote, expected to endorse a separate state, would be a mistake, increasing turmoil in a part of the world roiled by the fight against the Islamic State and further threatening Iraq’s territorial integrity. Postponement makes better sense.

In many ways, independence is a logical next step for the five million Iraqi Kurds, who carved out their semiautonomous enclave after the 1991 gulf war. Now that their military forces have played a pivotal role in helping to defeat the Islamic State, the Kurds think they are entitled to this long-promised referendum.

Kurdistan has evolved into a relatively peaceful region. It was lucky enough to have oil and gas resources that opened up trade with Turkey and Iran and brought needed revenue. After the 2003 American invasion, Washington worked with the Iraqis to draw up a constitution that ensured Kurdistan’s semiautonomous status.

There are also serious problems. Two families, the Barzanis and the Talabanis, control politics; corruption is widespread. Because of political infighting, Kurdistan’s parliament has not met since October 2015; the region’s president, Masoud Barzani, remains in office four years after his term ended. Declining oil prices and disputes with Iraq’s central government have left the Kurdistan government in debt. Kurdish authorities are accused of discriminating against minorities. Could Kurdistan make it as an independent state if Iraq and neighboring states stayed hostile to the idea?

The Kurds have sought an independent state since at least the end of World War I. While the Constitution guarantees them a role in the federal government as well as regional autonomy, the Kurds don’t believe the…

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