- - Wednesday, August 6, 2014

KIRKUK, Iraq — The Islamic State terrorist group’s capture of large swaths of Iraq has presented the country’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north with a unique opportunity: full independence.

Iraq’s U.S.-trained security forces have largely fled the battlefield over the past two months, but the armed Kurdish fighters known as the peshmerga (“those who face death”) have repelled the Islamic State militants and claimed two oil fields near Kirkuk for their semi-autonomous government.

This week, Iraq’s military announced that its air force will help the peshmerga combat Sunni militants in the northern part of the country — an important development, given the tense relations between Baghdad and the Kurdish government. The Islamic State militants, meanwhile, have begun targeting Iraq’s dams and reservoirs to exert control over the nation’s water and electricity supplies.

The Kurds’ success in battling the Sunni extremists and securing oil-producing areas undoubtedly gives the Kurdish Regional Government leverage to demand full independence from Baghdad and the Shiite-led administration of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said Wladimir van Wilgenburg, a Middle East analyst for the Jamestown Foundation in Washington.

“The Kurds would increasingly move toward independence, and Iraq would be deprived of significant oil revenue. The Kurds now almost have no border with the Iraqi government, only with [the Islamic State],” Mr. van Wilgenburg said.

But peshmerga officials are sensitive to intimations that they are taking advantage of the chaos wrought by the Sunni militants to help establish an independent Kurdistan.

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All territorial gains by the peshmerga have resulted from the retreat of the Iraqi army, said Halgurd Hikmet, a spokesman for the Kurdish Regional Government’s Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs.

“We are securing oil fields because we don’t want the Iraqi government to use it against us,” said Mr. Hikmet. “We are taking over vacant areas where the Iraqi army used to be. We are using oil for the good and progress of the Kurds’ future and the international community.”

Securing and maintaining a front along the 600-mile border that the Kurds share with the Islamic State comes at a cost. After the Iraqi army abandoned many Sunni regions, peshmerga filled the vacancies within hours.

“We took all positions left by the Iraqi army, including this school. It is our only option for the moment because we don’t want it to fall in the hands of [the Islamic State],” Capt. Botan Jaieel of the 10th Peshmerga Brigade said at a front-line post near Kirkuk.

Amid long-strained relations with the Kurds, Iraqi officials have blamed the Kurdish Regional Government for stoking political chaos since its representatives boycotted Mr. al-Maliki’s Cabinet last month.

Iraq’s fractious political system is predicated on a delicate balance among its Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish populations. The Iraqi Constitution requires the prime minister to be a Shiite, the speaker of parliament a Sunni and the president a Kurd.

Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani has called on the United Nations to help conduct a referendum in Kirkuk that would allow residents to decide which administration can claim power in the disputed oil-rich areas.

“The peshmerga taking control of Kirkuk is one thing, but taking control of oil fields is something else entirely,” Iraqi Oil Ministry spokesman Assem Jihad said in a recent interview with the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper. “This represents an unwelcome development and crosses every line.”

Of Persian (now Iranian) heritage, the Kurds number about 30 million in an area that includes parts of Iraq, Turkey and Syria. Those in northern Iraq have had partial autonomy since 1991.

Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, sits at the crossroads that link with Syria and Turkey in Iraq’s north. Iraqi forces have failed to wrest control of the city from Islamic State militants, who last month threatened to kill Christians there who refused to convert to Islam.

The proximity of the Islamic State to Kurdish-controlled areas raises concerns for Washington, Baghdad and the Kurds.

“It will be difficult for the United States and Baghdad to fight [the Islamic State] control over Mosul since the Kurdish forces are the only force that is close in proximity to the city and control most of the countryside or plains outside Mosul,” Mr. van Wilgenburg said.

The Kurds’ peshmerga are well-trained and have stopped some Islamic State advances, but most of their weaponry is decades old and wearing out. Baghdad has banned cargo from entering Kurdish airports and the U.S. has blocked arms sales to the Kurds, so the peshmerga lack sophisticated, modern weapons.

“Most of our weapons are mostly old and outdated from the ‘80s,” said a leader of the 7th Peshmerga Brigade, which has been ordered to defend villages and territories outside of Mosul. “I do not think America will help us, but maybe Israel will.”

Mr. van Wilgenburg said it will be difficult for the peshmerga to receive weapons. The price of bullets is increasing on the Kurdish market, though a large number of weapons are still available.

“The problem that remains for the Kurds is that [the Islamic State] now has much better access to weapons since they took many Iraqi army bases filled with U.S.-made weapons. While the U.S. blocked any attempts by the Kurds to get their own weapons,” the Jamestown Foundation analyst said.

Without arms support from countries such as the United States, the Kurds face uncertainty in direct battles with the Islamic State. Recent talks between U.S. and Kurdish officials focused on unifying Iraq. As Iraq shows signs of fragmentation and a decreasing hold on power, the Kurds are pushing for independence.

“The right to independence is a legitimate right of any nationalistic country. We have history and have suffered as Kurds of Iraq. Historically and geographically, Iraq is divided both spiritually and physically,” Mr. Hikmet said. “The Kurds want their independence and autonomy.”

The battle against the Islamic State hinges in part on the relationship among the Kurds, Washington and Baghdad.

“Washington and Baghdad can only fight against [the Islamic State] if they work alongside with the Kurds. If they would oppose Kurdish demands, this would threaten a deal in Baghdad,” Mr. van Wilgenburg said.

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