By Dexter Filkins
Masoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdish regional government. In July, he told the Kurdish parliament, “The time has come to decide our fate, and we should not wait for other people to decide it for us.” Credit Photograph by Moises Saman / Magnum
On the evening of August 8th, Najat Ali Saleh, a former commander of the Kurdish army, was summoned to a meeting with Masoud Barzani, the President of the semiautonomous Kurdish region that occupies the northern part of Iraq. Barzani, a longtime guerrilla fighter, was alarmed. Twenty-four hours before, fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS ) had made a huge incursion into the Kurds’ territory. They had overrun Kurdish forces in the western Iraqi towns of Sinjar and Makhmour, and had surged as far as Gwer, fifteen miles from the capital city of Erbil. At the Mosul Dam, on the Tigris River, they had seized the controls, giving them the ability to inundate Baghdad with fifteen feet of water. The Kurdish army is known throughout the region for its ferocity—its fighters are called peshmerga, or “those who face death”—and the defeat had been a humiliation. “We were totally unprepared for what happened,” Saleh told me. Kurdish leaders were so incensed that they relieved five commanders of their posts and detained them for interrogation. “It would have been better for them if they had fought to the death,” he said.
The fighting between ISIS and the Kurds stretches along a six-hundred-and-fifty-mile front in northeastern Iraq—a jagged line that roughly traces one border of Iraqi Kurdistan, the territory that the Kurds have been fighting for decades to establish as an independent state. With as many as thirty million people spread across the Middle East, the Kurds claim to be the world’s largest ethnic group without a country. Iraqi Kurdistan, which contains about a quarter of that population, is a landlocked region surrounded almost entirely by neighbors—Turkey, Iran, and the government in Baghdad—that oppose its bid for statehood.
The incursion of ISIS presents the Kurds with both opportunity and risk. In June, the ISIS army swept out of the Syrian desert and into Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. As the Islamist forces took control, Iraqi Army soldiers fled, setting off a military collapse through the region. The Kurds, taking advantage of the chaos, seized huge tracts of territory that had been claimed by both Kurdistan and the government in Baghdad. With the newly acquired land, the political climate for independence seemed promising. The region was also finding new economic strength; vast reserves of oil have been discovered there in the past decade. In July, President Barzani asked the Kurdish parliament to begin preparations for a vote on self-rule. “The time has come to decide our fate, and we should not
wait for other people to decide it for us,” Barzani said.
Since 2003, when the U.S. destroyed the Iraqi state and began spending billions of dollars trying to build a new one, the Kurds have been their most steadfast ally. When American forces departed, in 2011, not a single U.S. soldier had lost his life in Kurdish territory. As the rest of Iraq imploded, only the Kurdish region realized the dream that President George W. Bush had set forth when he ordered the attack: it is pro-Western, largely democratic, largely secular, and economically prosperous. President Obama recently told the Times that the Kurdish government is “functional the way we would like to see.”
Still, the Administration, bound to a policy it calls One Iraq, is quietly working to thwart the Kurds’ aspirations. American officials are warning companies that buying Kurdish oil may have dire legal consequences, and the warnings have been effective: the Kurdish regional government is nearly bankrupt. And yet, as the peshmerga work to force ISIS out of Kurdish territory, they have been supported by American jets and drones, and by American Special Forces on the ground. In August, President Obama ordered covert shipments of arms to the Kurds. By the end of the month, Kurdish forces had taken back much of the territory that they had lost to ISIS. and were preparing operations to reclaim the rest.
Obama has spoken carefully in public, but it is plain that the Administration wants the Kurds to do two potentially incompatible things. The first is to serve as a crucial ally in the campaign to destroy ISIS. with all the military funding and equipment that such a role entails. The second is to resist seceding from the Iraqi state. Around Washington, the understanding is clear: if the long-sought country of Kurdistan becomes real, America’s twelve-year project of nation building in Iraq will be sundered. Kurdish leaders acknowledge that the emergence of ISIS and the implosion of Syria are changing the region in unpredictable ways. But the Kurds’ history with the state of Iraq is one of persistent enmity and bloodshed, and they see little benefit in joining up with their old antagonists. “Iraq exists only in the minds of people in the White House,” Masrour Barzani, the Kurdish intelligence chief and Masoud’s son, told me. “We need our own laws, our own rules, our own country, and we are going to get them.”
Peshmerga forces near the city of Kirkuk, on the front between Kurdish and ISIS fighters. July 13, 2014.
Credit PHOTOGRAPHS BY MOISES SAMAN / MAGNUM