Facing opposition, Kurds make a new bid for independence

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: Voting for a new country, a
national identity for themselves, Farida Mamand wouldn’t have missed it for anything. You voted? FARIDA MAMAND, Iraq: 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 Peshmerga, most
of his life, just like his father before him. GEN. HUSSAIN MAMAND, Commander, Peshmerga (through
translator): 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. MASOUD BARZANI, President, Iraqi Kurdistan
Region (through translator): 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 translator): 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 translator): 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 for
the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL: 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 translator): 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 translator):
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. DLAWER ALA’ALDEEN, Middle East Research Institute:
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, Iraqi Prime Minister (through
translator): 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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