Mon, Jul 14, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Kurds feel their destiny has arrived

Fighters say the country set up by Britain in the 1920s will once again be three provinces

By Luke Harding  /  The Guardian, MARIAM BEK, Iraq

Illustration: Yusha

On one side were Kurdish fighters, dug in behind a series of ramparts and trenches reminiscent of World War I. About 500m away, over a muddy canal and past a farm, were the jihadist fighters of the Islamic State group, formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Offering a pair of binoculars, Kurdish Peshmerga First Lieutenant Noman Osman pointed to the ISIS checkpoint. It was a canopied shed. A burned-out truck sat nearby on a deserted road. There was also a US Humvee, looted from Iraqi forces by the extremist fighters. Beyond that ranged a ridge of feathery trees from where ISIS snipers had been taking potshots at Kurdish positions.

“Our mission is defensive. We are defending our land from terrorists,” Osman said. “We don’t venture beyond the canal.”

What did he think of his opponents, who now control much of Sunni Iraq?

“ISIS are traitors,” he said. “No cars cross here. However, two days ago a Sunni sheik came to visit. He says he wants to fight ISIS, that locals are fed up with them.”

From a Kurdish watchtower — reached via a metal ladder — a few civilian vehicles were visible in the far distance. The stillness was deceptive. Removing his hat, Osman showed off a bullet wound. An extremist shot him last month, he said.

“After two weeks in the hospital, I went back to the front,” he added.

This front line at Mariam Bek marks the new 1,000km fault line along which Iraq is fracturing. On one side is the Islamic State, the new caliphate proclaimed by ISIS, across Syria and Iraq. On the other, a possible future state of Kurdistan.

“When the British set up this country in the 1920s, they didn’t do a good job,” said police Colonel Ghaleb Taha Ismail, the chief of police in Kirkuk’s Kurdish Rahim Awa neighborhood. “Before, there were three provinces — Baghdad, Mosul and Basra. I think it will be three provinces again. History will go back to its original format.”

Why?

“Iraq has been a country for 90 years. Throughout this period, these three provinces haven’t been able to live together,” Ismail said.

Kurdish efforts to peel away from Baghdad’s rule are multiplying. They have announced a referendum, and last week said they were pulling out of Iraq’s national government, no longer sitting in the cabinet or ministries.

Central to this new reality is Kirkuk, an oil-rich, mainly Kurdish city of about 1 million people, which lies outside the Kurdish autonomous region. However, the Kurds have largely controlled it since 2003.

Late last week, peshmerga seized two nearby oilfields, Kirkuk and Bai Hassan, turning out Arab workers and replacing them with their own staff. Baghdad’s oil ministry was furious.

The move consolidates the Kurds’ hold on Kirkuk and its huge oil reserves. It suggests that the Kurdish fighters who entered the city a month ago are not planning to leave.

They moved in after the Iraqi troops tasked with guarding it ran away. The alternative, the Kurds say, was an ISIS takeover, followed by a bloodbath. Elsewhere, peshmerga advanced somewhere between 20km and 40km beyond existing Kurdistan and deep into federal Iraqi territory.

As Kurdistan got bigger; so did its security headache.

Despite heavy security around the city, an ISIS suicide bomber last month managed to penetrate inside. The Kurdish security agency Asayish says the situation inside Kirkuk is now “relatively calm.” However, it admits that ISIS remains a potent threat.

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