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Iraqi quagmire spurs independence movement in Kurdistan

Iraqi Kurdish residents buy groceries ahead of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan at a market in central Arbil, in Iraq's Kurdistan region in the June 28, 2014, photo.


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.

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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.

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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."

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.

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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.

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