The Turkish delegation was just one in a steady stream to visit Erbil since ISIL captured Mosul on June 10. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry recently came to call on Mr. Barzani – after the Kurdish government declined an invitation to meet him in Baghdad – followed swiftly by British Foreign Secretary William Hague. The heavy Iranian presence in the city (Tehran is seen as jostling with Ankara for influence across not just Kurdistan, but all of Iraq and Syria) was obvious last week in the groups of wildly partisan Persian-speakers who gathered in a hotel restaurant to cheer the Iranian team during its World Cup match.
Adding to the sense of geopolitical intrigue swirling around Erbil these days, uniformed U.S. troops – likely some of the 750 military “advisers” President Barack Obama has dispatched to Iraq – were spotted in one of the city’s five-star hotels last week, the same hotel where Sheik Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, one of the Sunni tribal leaders who has temporarily (he says) cast his lot with ISIL, is staying under the de facto protection of Mr. Barzani. Rumours are swirling that Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a former Saddam Hussein lieutenant whose fighters are also playing a role in the anti-government revolt, is also somewhere in Kurdistan. While concerned about the rise of ISIS on its southern border, Iraqi Kurdistan also serves unofficially – and awkwardly – the rear base for the “moderates” in the anti-Maliki movement.
Still, there are many who think that Kurdistan, even after all this waiting, isn’t quite ready for independence. The region is often hailed as a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, and minorities and women – short-sleeved blouses are more common in parts of Erbil than headscarves – have far more rights and protections than in the rest of Iraq.
But politics in Iraqi Kurdistan remains dominated by two families – the Barzanis and the rival Talabanis (the ailing Jalal Talabani is currently Iraqi President, a largely ceremonial post) – and corruption here is considered rampant. The fastest way to the front of the epic fuel lines is to be from a powerful family, or pay a little extra to the watching police.
Kurdish media are professional in tone, but are generally considered to be aligned with either the Barzani family’s Kurdistan Democratic Party or the Talabanis’ Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. In two recent high-profile cases, journalists who tried to investigate corruption among the ruling elite wound up murdered.
While the growing number of five-star hotels and walled neighbourhoods of luxury villas are springing up around Erbil – paid for and used as vacation spots by Turks, Iraqis and Gulf Arabs – local residents complain of substandard schools and hospitals that get far less government attention.
To be economically viable, an independent Kurdistan would also have to rely heavily on its new friend Turkey, which is far and away the Kurdistan region’s largest trading partner. The Iraqi Kurd economy is also seen as overly reliant on oil production. “If the Turkish border closed for three days, people would literally starve. Even our flour comes from Turkey,” said Hiwa Osman, a prominent Kurdish journalist. “Unless there are other means to make a living in the Kurdish region – agriculture, banking, IT, whatever – other means of generating income other than oil, we will not be in good shape.”
Tanya Gilly, a Kurdish human-rights activist and former Baghdad MP, agreed with Mr. Osman that – as excited as Kurds are by the opportunity that has fallen into their laps – the government in Erbil can’t move too quickly in the current situation.
“I think it’s every Kurdish person’s dream to see an independent Kurdish country, but how much preparation has been done for that? How ready are our institutions?”
“I tend to be optimistic, but we need to look at this pragmatically,” the Carleton University-educated Ms. Gilly continued. “Right now, all options are on the table. We’re not going to say right now ‘yes, we’ll stay part of this dysfunctional, problem-plagued country’ or ‘yes, we’ll declare independence.’ ”
In other words, Kurds – while closer than ever to their dream – will likely have to wait at least a little longer. Back in the gas lineup in central Erbil, drivers cursed the chaos in Iraq, but professed patience as they inched their cars forward towards the front of the line.
“I’d wait here every day if it meant Kurdistan would become independent,” said 26-year-old Mahmoud Botani, standing beside his white Volkswagen Golf near the end of a four-and-a-half hour wait for fuel.
He looked up and saw the cars ahead of him starting to move. “I can finally see the end,” he laughed.