A pair of rusted eyeglasses, a grimy antique watch, torn bank notes and old identification cards.
These simple items on display at a museum here in northern Iraq, dug from a mass grave of Kurdish tribesmen massacred by Saddam Hussein’s henchmen, help explain why there is little doubt about how Kurds will vote in a referendum this month on independence from Iraq.
“How could the international community expect us to be part of Iraq after these crimes?” said Khalat Barzani, who is in charge of the museum that memorializes the deportation and killings of thousands of Kurds in 1983.
Even if the outcome is a forgone conclusion — nearly every Kurd holds dear the dream of statehood — the vote in Iraqi Kurdistan represents a historic moment in the Kurds’ generations-long struggle for political independence.
Numbering about 30 million people spread across four countries – Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran – the Kurds are often described as the world’s largest ethnic group without their own homeland. Iraqi Kurdistan, an oil-rich enclave in northern Iraq, may be their best hope yet.
The referendum’s approval would start the process of turning the autonomous region into an independent state.
But outside of Kurdistan, every major player in the neighborhood opposes the vote, which could break up Iraq and further destabilize a volatile, war-torn region.
Baghdad has indicated that it would not recognize the results.
Across the border in Turkey, officials worry that Kurds declaring independence in Iraq would inflame the separatist sentiments of Kurds in Turkey. Turkey has opposed the referendum and warned that it could lead to a new civil war in Iraq.
American officials, concerned that it would hobble the fight against the Islamic State, have urged the Kurds to delay the vote. An open rift between Baghdad and Kurdistan could end the cooperation between Iraqi and Kurdish forces, which is seen as critical in the campaign to defeat the Islamic State. Kurdish secession would also deprive the United States of one of its primary goals since it invaded this country: keeping Iraq intact.
Iran, the pre-eminent foreign power in Iraq, with its close ties to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad and Iraqi Shiite militias under its control, has emphasized that its priority is maintaining the unity of Iraq.
Without the support of neighboring countries, the vote could backfire, failing to achieve independence and becoming another in a long history of lost opportunities for a long-suffering people.
It also could set off violence in disputed areas like Kirkuk, a multiethnic city under Kurdish control that has long been contested between the central government and Kurdish authorities.
“Having a referendum on such a fast timeline, particularly in disputed areas, would be, we think, significantly destabilizing,” Brett H. McGurk, President Trump’s envoy to the international coalition battling the Islamic State, said last month.
But the Kurdistan Regional Government says the vote will go forward as scheduled on Sept. 25, and will be binding. Assuming it passes, Kurdish officials say, it will set in motion a formal breakaway process, including negotiations with the Iraqi government and a diplomatic push to win the support of regional powers.
“If you look at our history we have been mistreated throughout history,” said Masrour Barzani, the chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council and the son of the region’s president, Massoud Barzani, who is leading the drive for sovereignty. “We as a nation have every right to self-determination.”
He added, “We believe it is the right time” to seek independence.
Many believe it is only a matter of time before the Kurds have their own state.
“The final destination is clear – it is independence,” said Peter W. Galbraith, a former American diplomat who has close ties to the Kurdish leadership. “By announcing the date of the referendum, it can’t be pulled back.”
As a young Senate staff member in the late 1980s, Mr. Galbraith traveled to Iraqi Kurdistan to document atrocities the Kurds suffered at the hands of Mr. Hussein, the Iraqi dictator, including the use of chemical weapons and the destruction of villages. His report helped raise international awareness of the Kurds’ plight and played a part in the United States’ decision to establish a no-fly zone in northern Iraq in 1991. That protection gave the Kurds breathing room to build an autonomous region and the bones of an independent state.
Mr. Galbraith likened the referendum to Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, a vote followed by negotiation. “At the end, it’s Brexit,” he said.
As the region has been troubled by turmoil, the Kurds have steadily capitalized on chaos to make gains. In northeastern Syria they have fought off the Islamic State, with support of the United States, and carved out a self-governing enclave. In Turkey, the Kurds won new political power in national elections and pushed for more rights.
And in Iraq, the onslaught of the Islamic State allowed the Kurds to claim new territory, including Kirkuk, which was abandoned by fleeing Iraqi soldiers.
But with each gain have come setbacks. In Syria, Turkey moved troops into the north to push back Kurdish advances. Turkey, after holding peace talks, reignited a long war with its own Kurds, and jailed Kurdish leaders. In Iraq, territorial gains were offset by a deep economic crisis after the price of oil collapsed and Baghdad stopped sending budget payments.
The economic crisis has created unease even among many Kurds who support the broader drive for independence but believe now is not the right time.
Thousands of Kurdish civil servants, including teachers, have not been paid their full salaries in years, and the regional government, which has not been able to export enough oil to achieve financial self-sufficiency, is close to $20 billion in debt.
“There are so many political, social, economic and legal issues in Kurdistan that we must solve,” said Kamal Chomani, a Kurdish analyst who has opposed the referendum.
Mr. Chomani worries that a declaration of independence now could fail, much like the experience of the only Kurdish state in history, the Republic of Mahabad, carved from Iranian territory in 1946 with support of the Soviet Union. But the Soviets quickly abandoned the Kurds, and the republic crumbled.
“The Kurds don’t want to see a short-lived Kurdistan,” Mr. Chomani said.
Another hurdle to independence is the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Baghdad has said it would never give up its claim to the city, and Iraqi Shiite militias with ties to Iran have indicated they would fight to keep Iraq intact, raising the possibility of a military battle.
Kirkuk, inhabited by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens, has long been the center of dispute between Baghdad and Kurdistan. A referendum on the city’s fate, originally scheduled for 2007 and a key component of the Iraqi Constitution the Americans helped write, has never been held.
But in 2014, as the Islamic State’s fighters bore down on the city and Iraqi soldiers dropped their weapons and ran, the Kurds took the city, which they consider a spiritual homeland and whose vast oil wealth could sustain an independent state.
The governor of Kirkuk, Najmaldin Karim, dismisses the argument that the Kurds have too many problems – an economic crisis, political divisions, the uncertain status of Kirkuk and other disputed areas – to seek independence now.
“Did the U.S. have a constitution when it declared independence?” he said. “No. Before African countries declared independence did they have everything in order?”
At 67, Mr. Karim is among a generation of Kurdish leaders who have come up in the Kurdish nationalist movement and now see, at the end of their careers, a chance to fulfill a long-held dream of independence. As a child, he saved his allowance to send money to the pesh merga, the Kurdish fighters who were battling the Iraq government then led by the Baath Party, to buy shoes and shirts.
Analysts say Baghdad is open to talking about independence with the Kurds, as long as their state does not include Kirkuk.
“People in Baghdad are willing to negotiate on independence,” said Joost Hiltermann, program director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution organization. “But not with Kirkuk. That is an absolute red line for everyone in Baghdad who isn’t a Kurd.”
Mr. Hiltermann said he would not be surprised if the referendum was delayed for that reason.
Ceding Kirkuk to the Kurds is also anathema for the city’s Arabs and Turkmen.
The city’s Arab deputy mayor, Rakan Saeed al-Jibouri, ticks off a list of Arab grievances in Kirkuk, documented by Human Rights Watch: being forcibly displaced by Kurdish security forces, denied jobs and barred from buying land.
“For the Kurds to decide on their own the fate of the city is a mistake,” he said.
On the streets of Kirkuk, where Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens mingle in cafes and on street corners, talk of the referendum among them is taboo.
On a recent afternoon, Assam Hussein, a Turkmen taxi driver, was hanging out in the streets with his Kurdish friends. But when asked about the referendum, he insisted on finding privacy to talk.
“I cannot talk in front of the Kurds,” said Mr. Hussein, who like most Turkmens does not want to live in a Kurdish state. “They are my brothers, but they will be upset. To be honest, we cannot talk about politics.”
At a nearby cafe, Karaman Mohammed, a Kurd who works for the local intelligence agency, was jubilant about the referendum. Mr. Mohammed nodded toward his brother, who was sitting next to him, and said: “He spent most of his life in Abu Ghraib prison. That is what happens when Arabs rule.”
As for the referendum, he said: “You can imagine my feeling. I am free. I have power.”