Iraq is imploding. The Sunni jihadis of the group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have moved to within sight of Baghdad, while the Shi’ite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki becomes more dependent than ever on Iran.
More and more, even Americans – who suffered tens of thousands of soldiers killed and wounded during their occupation of the country between 2003 and 2011 – are staring the obvious in the face: Iraq is really composed of three mutually hostile groups: Arab Sunnis in the centre, Arab Shi’ites in the south, and Kurds in the north.
With talk of partition, has the moment of historical opportunity finally arrived for the Kurds, the largest ethnic group in the world without a state of its own? Will one of the results of the current chaos be the formation of a sovereign entity on Kurdish territory?
After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the United States and Great Britain established a so‑called “no‑fly zone” above the 36th parallel in northern Iraq, allowing Kurds in that region to establish a de facto autonomous jurisdiction.
The defeat of Saddam Hussein by the United States in 2003 enabled the Kurds to strengthen their hold. Though divided into two major political groupings, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), which were often at odds, the Kurds presented a united front in their efforts to gain control of northern Iraq.
Iraqi Kurdistan is now virtually independent, with its own flag, executive, legislature, and judiciary. Its capital is Erbil (sometimes spelled Arbil).
Last September, Iraqi Kurdistan held its fourth legislative election for the 111-seat Kurdish National Assembly, with the KDP winning 38 seats to the PUK’s 18. A new opposition group, Gorran (the Movement for Change), which split off from the PUK, took 24, while two Islamic parties won another 16.
However, since the parliamentary elections of 2005, the KDP and PUK have ruled the Kurdish region as a united government, though the KDP has had the upper hand. Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish Region and son of the famed rebel leader Mustafa Barzani, heads the KDP. The PUK’s leader is Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani, who has been ill and holds little power in that largely ceremonial position.
Taking advantage of the turmoil in Iraq, the Kurdish military, known as the Peshmerga, has now seized large tracts of Kurdish-populated territories that had remained disputed and outside its control, including Kirkuk, which the Kurds see as a future capital.
Capturing the city and its huge oil reserves, just outside the area controlled by the Kurdish regional government is a huge achievement.
In Mosul, Sunni insurgents have gained control of the area on the west bank of the Tigris River, the Kurds on the other side.
Will the Kurds be able to gain – and retain – cities such as Kirkuk and Mosul, surrounded by oil-rich areas that would enable a Kurdish state to become economically self-sufficient, indeed wealthy? In two decades of de facto autonomy in Iraq's north, the Kurds have proved they can run a civil state.
The Kurds have also benefitted from improved relations with Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Ergogan, a religious Sunni, is no friend of the Shi’ite regime in Baghdad.
So Ankara and Erbil have built strong economic and diplomatic relations; they have signed a 50-year energy deal and Kurdish oil is being exported via a pipeline that connects the autonomous region to the port of Ceyhan on the Mediterranean. Turkey is now the KRG’s main business partner.
Last November Erdogan met with KRG President Barzani in the largely Kurdish-populated city of Diyarbakir in southeastern Turkey. The city was adorned with Turkish and KRG flags.
Earlier this month, Huseyin Celik, a spokesman for Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), declared that the Kurds of Iraq have the right to decide the future of their land. “Turkey has been supporting the Kurdistan Region,” he said, and will continue to do so.
This is probably the best chance the Kurds have had in 80 years to form a sovereign state in at least a part of their historic patrimony. They are certainly laying the groundwork for it to come to pass.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.