IRAQ

Everything changes for Kurds as they occupy vacuum left by Iraqi forces fleeing jihadists

Baghdad's loss of northern Iraq to jihadists meant minority fulfilled dream of winning Kirkuk and tore up settlement that kept state together

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 June, 2014, 6:24am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 June, 2014, 6:24am

Poets wrote songs about it for generations. Guerilla fighters, holed up in the mountains, trained for it for decades. But in the end, when a Kurdish army finally took control of Kirkuk, they realised the dream of their forefathers within hours, without having to fire a shot.

The collapse of Baghdad’s control of northern Iraq in the face of an onslaught by Sunni insurgents has allowed Kurds to take the historic capital they regard as their Jerusalem, and put them closer than ever to  an independent state of their own.

After Sunni insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) seized Iraq’s biggest northern city, Mosul, and rampaged towards  Baghdad, Kurdish fighters wasted no time.

They seized full control of Kirkuk – and tracts of land besides. In all, they expanded the territory they control by as much as 40 per cent, without having to fight a single battle.

The new territory includes vast oil deposits the Kurdish people regard as their national birthright and foundation for the prosperity of a future independent homeland.

Kurds plundered bases deserted by the Iraqi army in Kirkuk, making off with everything from guns to air-conditioners, armoured vehicles and mattresses in a frenzy reminiscent of the scenes after the fall of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2003.

For now, Kurdish officials are still weighing their options for next steps, but they have made clear that the settlement that held Iraq together as a state has been torn up.

“We have entered a new era in Iraq that is completely different than before Mosul,” said Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Kurdish regional president Massoud Barzani. “We will see how we are going to deal with this new Iraq.”

The 30 million Kurds – the world’s largest stateless nation, divided between Iraq, Iran, Syria, Armenia and Turkey – have sought a state of their own since the mapmakers of the modern Middle East denied them one last century. Since Saddam’s fall, Iraq’s four million Kurds have come the closest: ruling themselves in a prosperous and comparatively peaceful autonomous region of three remote mountainous provinces, under a settlement that awards them a fixed 17 per cent of Iraq’s total oil wealth.

But disputes remained  over the authority to issue oil exploration rights, and over the  boundaries of the autonomous region – demarcated between government troops and Kurdish forces by an often tense “green line”.

Now, the government troops are gone, and the Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga – or “those who confront death” – have effectively resolved the main disputes in the Kurds’ favour.

“All these areas are going to be incorporated into the region,” said Jabbar Yawar, secretary general of the Kurdish Ministry of Peshmerga. “Currently our border is with ISIL, it is not with the Iraqi government.”

The priority for now, Kurdish officials say, is to insulate the region from the violent fallout in the rest of Iraq.

Officials in Kurdistan say they anticipated last week’s assault by ISIL fighters as long as a year ago, and warned Baghdad to no avail.

They built up their own defences by creating a security belt stretching more than 1,000 kilometres from the Iranian border all the way to Syria – skirting around Mosul, a city of two million people they appear to have no intention of fighting for.