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Protestors stand outside the Irbil International Airport to oppose the flight ban issued by the Iraq federal government. Photo: Bram Janssen / AP

After Iraqi Kurds held an independence referendum last month, the government in Baghdad — which deemed the vote unconstitutional — sent in troops. It wasn't the first time Kurds have pushed toward independence, only to be beaten.

Why it matters: It's likely not the last time, either. The complicated history behind the regional struggle spans across decades and borders, and Kurdish support for independence are coming to a head, not just in Iraq, but in neighboring countries as well.

Spread between four states

The 1923 Treaty of Lausanne left the Kurdish population split between states.

  • There are over 2 million Kurds in Syria, 5 million in Iraq, 5 million in Iran, and 18 million in Turkey, per The Economist.
  • Between 1991 and 2003, the U.S., Turkey, and Iran pressured Iraqi Kurds to cease calls for independence, fearing the interest would spread throughout the region and cause political chaos. Even now…
  • Turkey fears such cascading disruption and has battled its own Kurdish population (in particular the PKK, which it regards as a terrorist organization) for decades.
  • Although Iran condemned Iraqi Kurds' referendum, its Kurdish population celebrated in the streets, and calls for independence are growing there.
  • Syria, too, rejected the independence vote in Iraq, and has opposed its own Kurdish population's moves towards independence, which bubbled up in 2011.
  • Although the U.S. opposed last month's referendum, it played a large role in getting Kurdish status recognized in the Iraqi constitution in the early 2000s. The U.S. draws a line at independence though, in part because it depends on Iraq and Turkey in the anti-ISIS fight.
An Iraqi Kurdistan now?

Iraqi Kurdistan operates has operated semi-autonomously from Iraq's central government, with its own military, government, and foreign policy — it's the closest thing to a Kurdish state in recent decades. That status came as a result of the 2003 U.S. invasion, which toppled Saddam Hussein (who had previously committed genocide against Iraqi's Kurds). The new government formalized the Kurdish semi-autonomous government.

  • Clashes since the independence vote this fall: Following the referendum, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi said sending in troops to Kirkuk, a region Kurds have held since 2014, was necessary to "protect the unity" of the country. Instead of statehood, the Kurds got a conflict with the potential to erupt into civil war. U.S. Colonel Ryan Dillon said Friday the Kurds and Iraqis had almost reached a cease-fire deal.
  • The latest: There's a 24-hour pause in fighting, ordered by Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, per Bloomberg.
The stops and starts for independence
  • After the Treaty of Lausanne, an independent Kurdish state was established in Iran, which survived for 2 years with Soviet support.
  • Iraq jailed Kurdish nationalists in the 1940s.
  • The first Kurdish-Iraqi war erupted in 1961 and lasted until 1970, with the Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers receiving support from Iran. This conflict ended in an agreement that allowed Kurds de facto autonomy and recognized Kurdish as an official language.
  • But the agreement fell apart over disputes about territorial ownership of oil-rich Kirkuk, and Iran didn't aid the Kurds due to a deal with Iraq.
  • Between 1968-1989 Iraq forcibly evacuated Kurds to settlements in the north.
  • In 1988, Saddam responded to an uprising with executions and poison gas attacks.
  • In 1991, the Kurds rose up again, and Saddam put them down again. International coalition forces intervened to provide safe havens for the Kurds, and the Kurds set up a government with de facto autonomy.
  • The 2003 U.S. invasion toppled Saddam and led to Kurdistan receiving recognition as a federal entity.
  • As Iraqi forces fell to ISIS in 2014, Kurds seized oil-rich Kirkuk, which is technically outside of its borders.

Go deeper

Republicans threaten to shut down government over vaccine mandates

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) in the Capitol in November 2020. Photo: Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

Conservative Republicans in the House and Senate are planning to force a government shutdown Friday to deny funding needed to enforce the Biden administration's vaccine mandates on the private sector, according to Politico.

Why it matters: Congress has until the end of the week to pass a stopgap measure to extend funding into 2022, though objection from a small group of Republicans could shut down the government.

Electric car prices could go up before they come down

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

The secret to affordable electric vehicles is cheaper batteries. But after years of falling prices, battery costs are now headed in the wrong direction.

Why it matters: Costlier batteries could drive up the price of electric vehicles — threatening the auto industry's transition away from fossil fuels, and, in turn, society's fight against climate change.

The Supreme Court's abortion showdown arrives

Protesters gather at the Supreme Court during arguments about the Texas abortion law Nov. 1. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Supreme Court will debate today whether to overturn Roe v. Wade, and neither side is trying to lower the stakes — or to make today’s case anything less than a referendum on Roe’s very survival.

The big picture: Conventional wisdom, on both the left and right, says the court is likely to chip away at abortion rights without overturning its precedents outright. But neither side has spent much time trying to help the justices thread that needle.