By the odometer, the line stretches for 2.7 kilometres, snaking for blocks around a peshmerga military base and among the construction sites that are the pride of Iraqi Kurdistan. There are hundreds of cars, some waiting nine hours for their once-a-week ration of 25 litres of gasoline.
The gas lines are an old/new phenomenon in Kurdish cities, a throwback to wars past and the result of a new conflict to the south. Fighting between Sunni militants and the Iraqi army has shut the country’s crucial Beiji oil refinery, cutting off the supply of fuel to much of the Kurdish north.
Once more, just as Kurdistan was making economic progress, it got dragged back into the quagmire that is the rest of Iraq. Since the start of last month, the Kurdish region has been flooded with an estimated 500,000 refugees who have fled the swath of Iraq conquered by the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.
But the crisis has created as much opportunity as trouble for the Kurdistan government.
As the insurgents seized a succession of large cities in their blitzkrieg drive towards Baghdad, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani made a land grab of his own, sending thousands of Kurdish fighters to “protect” the oil-rich Kirkuk region. Now with Kirkuk – a city Kurds see as their cultural capital – under Kurdish control, Mr. Barzani is moving swiftly to take advantage of the situation and advance an agenda the Kurds have never hidden: their desire for a sovereign state.
On Thursday he asked the regional parliament to prepare a referendum on Kurdish independence, signalling his impatience with Baghdad, which is fighting to repel Sunni insurgents and struggling to form a new government. “The time has come for us to determine our own fate and we must not wait for others to determine it for us,” Mr. Barzani said in a closed parliament session that was later broadcast on television.
The time does indeed feel ripe. Not only is Iraq disintegrating beneath the Kurds – the ISIL drive has roughly cleaved the Arab part of the country into its pre-existing Sunni and Shia halves – the entire neighbourhood is in flux. Syria, too, is crumbling, leaving Kurds there to carve out an autonomous region of their own in the northeast, and Turkey – long the most vehement opponent of any kind of Kurdish state – has pulled a shocking 180-degree turn to become the closest ally of the Iraqi Kurds.
“Twenty-three years ago, when we had our uprising [against the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein], if we had declared independence we would have been invaded by Iran, Syria, Turkey and Iraq. Ten years ago, we would have been fought by Iran, Turkey and Syria. Now, Turkey would not be against it – they might even support it – and there’s no Syria,” said Dara Khailany, an adviser to Kurdish prime minister (and son of the President) Nechervan Barzani, in an interview in one of the city’s multiplying number of Western-style cafés.
Other than the gas lines, life here continues largely as though there wasn’t a war burning less than 100 kilometres away. Erbil’s hotels and restaurants are full – business has actually been boosted by the refugee influx, since many of the Arab refugees arrived with enough money to live for at least a few weeks before turning to aid agencies for help. Only a smattering of small tent cities have emerged.
Unlike those in the rest of Iraq – filled with the smoke of nargileh and pounding with Arabic pop music – the cafés in Erbil’s Christian neighbourhood of Ainkawa are non-smoking establishments where you can order an iced cappuccino in English and watch BBC World on television while you sip. “There is going to come a time – is it going to be tomorrow, or next year, we don’t know – when we say, ‘OK, goodbye Baghdad,’” Mr. Khailany said, paying little attention to televised footage of the carnage an hour’s drive away.
Turkey’s new openness to the idea of an independent Kurdistan – though only in northern Iraq, not in the Kurdish-populated east of their own country – has come about gradually over the past decade as economic ties between Erbil and Ankara grew. The rise of ISIL has helped complete Prime Minister Tayyep Recep Erdogan’s conversion. Ankara now sees a Kurdish state, especially one heavily reliant on Turkish goodwill, as a preferable neighbour to an Iraq in constant chaos or an extremist mini-state ruled by ISIL.
Turkey’s appetite was further whetted by the first deliveries of Kurdish oil this month to the Mediterranean port of Ceyhan via pipeline across Turkey, with Ankara almost certainly receiving handsome transit fees for pumping the oil to market while ignoring Baghdad’s vociferous protests. A spokesman for Turkey’s ruling AK party recently told Kurdish media that “the Kurds of Iraq can decide where to live and under what title they want to live.”