‘Welcome to Kurdistan,” said Massoud Barzani, the diminutive head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party at his mountaintop headquarters northeast of Erbil, capital of today’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
“I hope you had a safe journey.” The date was 1992, not long after the Persian Gulf War and an abortive Kurdish uprising, and travel in northern Iraq was anything but safe. There were Iraqi snipers on the southern hilltops, bombs on the roadside and blown up bridges over the river.
His enclave was a fragile one – it had few roads, no industry and 3 1/2 million people to feed but, to Mr. Barzani, it was a beautiful thing. For decades, promises of an autonomous Kurdish state by British, Soviet and U.S. backers had come to naught and this was his big break.
It’s been said of the Palestinians, another ethnic group in search of a state, that they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
The same cannot be said of the Kurds. They never miss an opportunity – period.
When the United States, following the Persian Gulf War in 1991, provided aerial protection from Saddam Hussein’s forces so the Kurds could live in relative safety in northern Iraq, Kurds banded together and elected a government, then proceeded to build a legislature and a country.
A decade later, when Saddam was overthrown in 2003 by the U.S.-led invasion, the Kurds insisted on constitutional recognition of their autonomous status and the right to retain their own militia – the peshmerga.
And when Iraq’s national army wilted last week in the face of advances from the jihadist group Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, those peshmerga quickly moved in to safeguard the oil fields and city of Kirkuk that have long been claimed by Kurds.
The history of the Kurdish nation-state will be written in chapters such as these, and the Kurdish leadership has no intention of reversing course; certainly not from its latest acquisition – Kirkuk.
“There’s no going back for them,” said Yezid Sayigh, a senior analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut. “Kirkuk is something they have long wanted.”
The government in Baghdad “must accept this new reality,” he said.
That’s certainly the view of Nechirvan Barzani, the KRG Prime Minister and nephew of the KDP Leader. “If we think that Iraq will go back like before [the ISIL’s capture of] Mosul, I don’t think so. It’s almost impossible,” he said in an interview this week with the BBC.
Indeed, the Kurdish Prime Minister even said that creating an autonomous region for Iraq’s Sunni Arabs, similar to that of the Kurds, might be the best way for Sunnis to overcome the domination by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the country’s majority Shia population.
Mr. Barzani was speaking just before the formation this week of a new, more broadly based government.
“As we needed [unity] in the year 2003 to protect the gains of our people, today we need the same stance to protect the areas of Kurdistan outside the administration of the region,” he said, referring to the swath of disputed territory over which the peshmerga have recently taken control.
These Kurdish fighters may be the only forces in Iraq that can stand up to the ISIL, but Mr. Barzani ruled out using them to drive the ISIL fighters from Mosul and other areas. Their “top priority,” he said, is to protect Kurdistan.
To that end, the peshmerga have taken control of the border town of Rabia, captured earlier by the ISIL, as well as a number of other centres deserted by Iraqi forces.
Michael Knights, an Iraq analyst at the Washington Institute, says the peshmerga are “vital” to the success of an Iraqi counterattack. The area captured by the ISIL is about 300 kilometres long, he noted, but narrow and strung out along the KRG frontier.
He argues that the Kurds should be willing to join such an operation provided Baghdad offers them some concessions on their control of oil exports and revenue sharing.
Relations between the KRG and the Maliki government reached an all-time low in May, when the Kurds began exporting oil via Turkey – over Baghdad’s objection. Mr. al-Maliki cut off government funds to the Kurds in retaliation.
Some 20 years ago, aid officials and diplomats working in Kurdistan scoffed at the notion that a Kurdish state in Iraq could be self-sufficient, unless it acquired Kirkuk and its oil fields. But “getting Kirkuk is a pipe dream and the Kurdish leaders know it,” one official said at the time.
Today, it appears to be a pipe dream come true.