What do the stable, Western government of Spain and the war-ravaged, Muslim nation of Iraq have in common?
Both nations have large groups of their citizens calling for independence. In Spain, Catalonia (home of the beautiful city of Barcelona) wants to vote on finally forming a nation independent of the Spanish government. In Iraq, the Kurdish people have just voted, overwhelmingly, to declare independence from Iraq and establish a homeland for the Kurds.
The reasons for independence are very different and very similar and the way Spain and Iraq respond could make all the difference.
First, in Spain.
More than 160 schools have been occupied around Catalonia as separatists and the Spanish government are in a standoff ahead of a planned referendum Sunday.
Tens of thousands of people are expected to attempt to vote in schools around the region. Police inspected 1,300 out of the 2,315 designated polling station Saturday, with 163 being occupied by separatists. The remaining facilities have been sealed off by police.
The referendum has been deemed unconstitutional by courts, but Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont affirms that the vote will go ahead as planned.
“Everything is prepared at the more than 2,000 voting points so they have ballot boxes and voting slips, and have everything people need to express their opinion,” Puigdemont told Reuters.
Meanwhile, the Spanish government insists “there will be no referendum” and that anyone trying to organize it will face criminal charges, government spokesman Inigo Mendez de Vigo said Friday.
The standoff has so far been peaceful, and Puigdemont has called on Catalans to remain calm and not use violence.
“I don’t believe there will be anyone who will use violence or who will want to provoke violence that will tarnish the irreproachable image of the Catalan independence movement as pacifist,” Puigdemont said.
Catalonia has pushed for a legitimate referendum for years. An 80 percent majority backed independence in a symbolic referendum in 2014, which the federal government ruled unconstitutional. Three former officials, including the former Catalan President Artur Mas, were barred from holding public office as a result.
Spain has threatened to suspend hundreds of mayors for backing Sunday’s referendum. Polls suggest that a majority of people want to remain part of Spain while also supporting the vote to settle the issue.
And now in Iraq.
The Iraqi military is making preparations Saturday to move in and control Kurdish borders, following a successful independence referendum to make Kurdistan a separate country.
Iraqi troops are now stationed in Turkey and Iran and will reportedly soon start controlling who goes in and who comes out of Kurdish-controlled areas, the Associated Press reports.
That control apparently won’t extend to the Iraqi military moving in on Kurdish-controlled territory, but whether that restraint holds is an open question, which has sparked U.S. worry of an escalating rift between the Iraqis and Kurds, both of whom are U.S. allies in the fight against the Islamic State. The Kurds have had some level of de facto independence since 1991.
Iraq, Turkey and Iran have come out against the non-binding independence referendum, with Turkey threatening to end the Kurds’ oil pipeline and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowing that Kurdish authorities will pay the price for their actions.
“They are not forming an independent state, they are opening a wound in the region to twist the knife in,” Erdogan said.
Even the U.S. asked the Kurds to cancel the vote, which ended up producing a 93 percent “yes” result in favor of separating from Iraq out of a population of 3 million. But Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Friday that the U.S. does not recognize the legitimacy of the referendum, and urged the Iraqis and Kurds to focus squarely on defeating ISIS. The fact that the referendum question has come so aggressively to the forefront is precisely because ISIS has lost large swathes of its territory in Iraq and Syria, making it much less of a threatening force than it was just a year ago.
Separation would entail taking a third of Iraq’s existing territory, which happens to include a wealth of oil and gas reserves.
As such, Baghdad has blocked international flights to the Kurdish region known as Kurdistan, and Iraq’s parliament has requested that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi slap charges against any Kurdish leaders who took part in the referendum, which Baghdad considers unconstitutional.
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