Why are the Kurds breaking away?
Ever since the U.S. invasion toppled Saddam Hussein, they've been running Iraqi Kurdistan as a semi-autonomous region, and now see the country's disintegration as an opportunity. Kurdistan is largely peaceful, safe, and, thanks to carefully invested oil wealth, increasingly prosperous. The capital, Erbil, boasts luxury apartment blocks, five-star hotels, and gleaming new shopping malls. The recent declaration of a caliphate by militant group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), gives the Kurds — a non-Arabic, mostly Sunni Muslim people with their own language and culture — a chance to achieve their long-standing goal of an independent nation. The president of Iraqi Kurdistan, Masoud Barzani, recently asked the region's Parliament to prepare for a referendum on breaking away. "Iraq is effectively partitioned now," he said. "Are we supposed to stay in this tragic situation?"
Have the Kurds always been so successful?
No. In fact, Kurdish history has primarily been defined by persecution. For centuries, Kurds lived a largely nomadic existence in the Mesopotamian plains and highlands of Turkey and Iran. When the Ottoman Empire was dismantled at the end of World War I, a victorious Britain and France promised the Kurds an independent homeland, but in the face of Turkish opposition failed to keep their word. Instead, the Kurds — who today number around 30 million — were split between different nations. In Iraq, as in many other countries where they formed minorities, Kurds faced serious oppression. When the Arab nationalist Baath Party took power in 1968, Kurdish books were pulled from libraries and burned, and teachers were banned from using the Kurdish language, a close relative of Persian. The repression only grew worse when dictator Saddam Hussein took over in 1979.
What did Saddam do?
He committed genocide. In retaliation for Kurdish support for Iran in the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, his air force dropped poison gas on Kurdish towns and villages. Anyone who survived was rounded up and taken to prison camps, where men and boys deemed old enough to hold a gun would be summarily executed. When the campaign ended in 1989, 90 percent of Kurdish villages had been wiped off the map, and up to 100,000 people had been slaughtered. The Kurds rebelled again after the Gulf War of 1990–91, but were once more crushed by Iraqi forces, and only avoided annihilation because the West imposed a no-fly zone over their territory in 1991. That protection allowed the Kurds to establish a semi-autonomous region with its own Parliament, which is now home to 6.5 million people.
Did they welcome Saddam's fall?
In 2003, American troops were greeted in Iraqi Kurdistan as liberators. "I felt like a soldier driving through France at the end of World War II," said Army Lt. Col. Harry Schute. "Cheering people lined the highway in every village we passed." In national elections in 2005, the Kurds became the second-largest parliamentary group, and negotiated further autonomy from Baghdad. As Iraq was torn apart by fighting between Arab Shiites and Sunnis, foreign energy companies invested in the relatively peaceful Kurdish region, which sits on an estimated 45 billion barrels of oil — the world's sixth-largest reserve. Iraq's energy sector is supposed to be controlled by Baghdad, but late last year, the Kurds finished building their own pipeline to Turkey and started exporting 120,000 barrels of oil a day. Iraq's Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki responded by cutting off the region's share of the national budget. But the Kurds refused to halt their exports. "We want to have control of our economic destiny," said Ashti Hawrami, Iraqi Kurdistan's minister of natural resources.
How has the rise of ISIS affected the Kurds?
It has deepened the tensions with Maliki and the Baghdad government. When Iraq's Shiite-dominated army responded to the ISIS offensive by retreating in panic and abandoning posts along the disputed border between Kurdish and Arab Iraq, the Peshmerga — the Kurds' fierce armed forces — rushed forward. They grabbed the city of Kirkuk, which Kurds consider their ancestral capital, as well as several government oil refineries. Maliki accused the Kurds of collaborating with ISIS to break apart Iraq — a charge the Kurds deny. "We simply filled the security vacuum," a Peshmerga fighter told The Economist.
Is independence realistic?
The U.S. has asked the Kurds not to break away, but there is little to keep the Kurds within Iraq. While Turkey once regarded the idea of an independent Iraqi Kurdistan as a threat — thinking it would encourage its own Kurdish population to demand independence — Ankara is now happy to use the Kurds as a buffer against the chaos in Iraq. "They want a stable and commercially viable state on their southern border," said David Phillips, an Iraq expert at Columbia University. So despite the opposition in Washington and Baghdad, Kurdish independence seems inevitable. "In the very near future," said Adnan Mufti, a senior official of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, "the Kurdish state will become a reality."
The Israeli connection
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared that he supported Iraqi Kurds' "aspiration for independence" last month, it marked a new high point in the long-standing alliance between the Israeli and Kurdish people. The friendly relationship began in the early 1960s, when Iraqi Kurdish rebels sent emissaries to Israel to plead for help fighting their mutual enemy: the Arab government in Baghdad. "[They] told us Kurds, like Jews, were ignored by everybody and needed help," said Eliezer Tsafrir, a former Mossad agent who headed Israel's covert operations in Iraqi Kurdistan. Israel supplied the Peshmerga with weapons and training from 1965 to 1975, and the Kurds reciprocated by launching an offensive against the Iraqi army during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War, tying down troops that would otherwise have been fighting the Jewish state. Tsafrir said he is certain that an independent Iraqi Kurdistan would be an ally of Israel. "I want to be Israel's first consul general in Erbil," he said.