As Iraq fractures into pieces, the long-simmering movement for Kurdish independence is showing its strength. The Kurds, who control an oil-rich swath of northeastern Iraq, have been seizing more territory as the central government in Iraq fails to stem the recent march by ISIS across Iraq's terrain.
The New Iraq? Map of cultural/religion inhabitants. Tan = Sunni; Red = Shia; Blue = Kurd. (ISIS = Sunni) pic.twitter.com/OM7a8xOD6H— Jacob Dirr (@JacobDirr) June 14, 2014
Last month, as Iraqi troops deserted their posts in the city of Kirkuk, the Kurds seized control of the prized city and have held it and its oil refineries. As Zack Beauchamp noted, "the crisis has been, in a strange way, a boon to the Kurds — provided that they can remain out of the fighting."
But the fighting, especially over Kirkuk, has come to them. As the Washington Post reported, the two groups have been duking it with ISIS bombarding the city, killing scores of civilians in recent days. Kurdish Gen. Mariwan Mohammad gave this assessment of the fighting:
So far, he said, 54 Kurdish fighters have been killed and 350 wounded along the 110-mile stretch that his forces help defend."
What makes the Kurdish expansion particularly captivating is its popularity among ethnic minorities in Iraq, which have long been isolated by the divisive Shiite-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and are finding the Kurds to be tolerant of minorities. Their Kurdish push has also been accompanied by a sophisticated building of infrastructure and institutions. In essence, they now have a de facto state.
Writing in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg relayed the parallel between the Kurdish and the Palestinian national movements, which in the context of the ongoing conflicts is something telling:
This is what Barham Salih, the former prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, told me years ago: “Compare us to other liberation movements around the world. We are very mature. We don’t engage in terror. We don’t condone extremist nationalist notions that can only burden our people. Please compare what we have achieved in the Kurdistan national-authority areas to the Palestinian national authority. … We have spent the last 10 years building a secular, democratic society, a civil society.”
Earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also sought to trumpet the Kurdish path as an implicit foil for the Palestinian one. He stopped short of endorsing their independence outright, but noting that the Kurds “are a fighting people that has proved its political commitment, political moderation, and deserves political independence.”
Even as it beefs up its security coordination with the Kurds, the United States continues to push back against Kurdish statehood (which other Western countries also oppose) as it works to keep the Iraqi, as we know it, intact. In a meeting with Kurdish President Massoud Barzani last month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry implored the Kurds to give the new Iraqi parliament a chance to work.
The very first session of the Iraqi parliament lasted an hour before the Kurdish and Sunni delegates walked out in protest.