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Journal of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies Vol. 41, No. 2, Winter 2018 The Kurdistan Referendum: An Evaluation of the Kurdistan Lobby Vera Eccarius-Kelly* Agitated and shaken Kurdish protesters gathered in Erbil (Hewlêr), the capital city of the Kurdistan Region in Iraq (KRI) in mid-October 2017. Shi’a militias and the Iraqi army had seized the Kurdish-administered city of Kirkuk and the nearby Avana and Bai Hassan oil fields (the Kurds had integrated these fields into their own oil production system shortly after Mosul fell to the Islamic State in 2014). The demonstrators chanted slogans in favor of Kurdish self-determination, waved red, white, and green banded Kurdish flags, and marched from the United Nations compound to the American consular building. With the endorsement of the governing Barzani family, the crowds of protesters called on the international community to intervene on Kurdistan’s behalf. Fearing further violence related to the regional occupation by the Iraqi military, and additional territorial losses, anger spread quickly throughout the KRI. Just days earlier, thousands of panicked Kurdish civilians fled Kirkuk after rumors spread that a violent Iraqi Arab and Shi’a invasion was 16 *Vera Eccarius-Kelly is Professor of Comparative Politics at Siena College in Loudonville/Albany, NY. Her research interests focus on Kurdish diaspora activism and revolutionary movements in Latin America. She published numerous book chapters in recent collections, including "The Kurdish Diaspora and Europe's Gatekeeping after Kobane," in Domestic and Regional Uncertainties in the New Turkey (2017) and "Behind the Front Lines: Kobani, Legitimacy, and Kurdish Diaspora Mobilization" in a collection entitled Kurdish Issues (Mazda Press, 2016). Among her journal publications are "The imaginary Kurdish Museum: ordinary Kurds, narrative nationalisms, and collective memory" in Kurdish Studies (2015), "Surreptitious Lifelines: A Structural Analysis of the FARC and the PKK," in Terrorism and Political Violence (2012) and “Nationalism, Ethnic Rap, and the Kurdish Diaspora,” in Peace Review (2010). She published a monograph entitled The Militant Kurds: A Dual Strategy for Freedom (Praeger International, 2011). She can be reached at veccarius 17 underway.1 In an atmosphere of insecurity, confusion, and despair, the population judged Kurdistan’s future harshly as neighboring countries closed their borders and the Iraqi government suspended international air traffic into Erbil and Sulaimaniyah (Slemani), the region’s second largest city. Many Kurds were asking if the U.S. had abandoned their allies despite the Kurds’ loyal backing of American security interests. Kurdish protesters were seething that Iraqi forces relied on U.S. supplied weapons against the Kurds without a strong response from the Trump administration. At the same time, Kurds also voiced how disconnected they felt from their privileged Kurdish leadership, whom they blamed for reigniting fault lines reminiscent of earlier Kurdish factionalism.2 Masoud Barzani, the main architect of the Kurdistan Referendum and then President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), called on the Kurdish diaspora and its intellectual leadership to take a firm stand against the mistreatment of Kurdish populations by the Iraqi government and its allies. In a last ditch effort to position Kurdistan for unconditional talks with the central government in Baghdad, Barzani warned of largescale attacks against Kurdish civilians by Shi’a militias, so-called Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs) along with Iranian forces. In Barzani’s view an imminent threat of violence warranted the immediate involvement of the international community. Out of options, Barzani relied on two core Kurdish grievances to combat the global silence that followed the referendum. He invoked the memory of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal campaigns against Kurds and warned of looming Iranian expansionism into Kurdish administered areas. In one of his last public appeals to the world as President of the KRG3 , Barzani articulated that the international community and the diaspora needed to be committed to “prevent this warmongering , murder, [the] violations and the fleeing of people, committed by the Iraqi government through its militia forces and in cooperation with foreign assistance and guidance against Kurdistan.”4 1 Erika Solomon, “Kurds fearful and angry after Iraqi forces take Kirkuk,” Financial Times, October 19, 2017. 2 These comments are based on Skype interviews with Kurdish diaspora members who attended protest events in Cologne...


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