WATCH: Every disaster is an opportunity and for Iraq’s Kurdish population, this may be a chance to go it alone. Stuart Greer reports from Erbil.
Please note: This post, originally published June 18, has been updated to include new reporting from inside the Kurdistan region
Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq have been largely spared the country’s worsening turmoil as Islamist militants make their way further south, taking over cities and towns en route to Baghdad.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) took over areas that have large Kurdish populations, including Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul last week, but the Sunni Muslim militant group’s fighters haven’t attempted to move into Kurdish-controlled areas so far.
Erbil, the capital of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, has become a haven for displaced people fleeing ISIL’s violent advances.
With Iraq on the brink of bloody sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites – again – and amid fears the country could fall apart, the Kurdistan region in the north may have a chance to achieve a greater degree of independence.
Iraqi Kurdistan is safe – for now
The Kurds may not have the strongest relationship with the Shiite-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but they’re by no means pledging allegiance to ISIL, as local Sunni groups in captured cities have.
Iraq’s Kurds see ISIL as a terrorist group and, with the advance on Mosul June 6, the Kurdistan Regional Govenment mobilized peshmerga forces to protect the autonomous region’s recognized borders.
Peshmerga forces protected Kurdish territory and moved into Kirkuk – the oil-rich city the Kurds have long claimed as their capital, but which has been under Iraqi government control – and areas of the northwestern province of Niveneh, where Mosul is located.
Meanwhile, areas inside Iraqi Kurdistan have become a refuge for those fleeing the violence.
About 300,000 people fled Mosul last week and sought refuge in Kurdish cities and towns, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
That’s in addition to about 250,000 Syrian refugees that have fled into Iraqi Kurdistan in the past three years, and thousands of others seeking refuge from fighting in Iraq’s Anbar province this year, according to Rudaw, a Kurdish news network.
Are Kurdish forces fighting with ISIL?
Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani told BBC on Tuesday that peshmerga fighters would not assist Iraqi efforts to reclaim Mosul.
“It would be a mistake to fight the ISIS at this stage,” Kurdish politician Arif Taifour told Rudaw . “We should defend our own Kurdish territories outside the Kurdistan Region and not become part of the religious fight in Iraq.”
But there have been clashes between ISIL militants and peshmerga fighters in the past two weeks in areas claimed by both Kurds and the Iraqi government, such as in Niveneh and Diyala province.
Six peshmerga were injured Wednesday in the town of Jalula, about 125 kilometres northeast of Baghdad, where the ISIL are fighting to take control.
Will Iraqi Kurdistan become independent?
That’s anyone’s guess. But the prime minister and deputy prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government said, in separate interviews, they expect Iraq could end up divided.
“We’ve said all along that we won’t break away from Iraq but Iraq may break away from us, and it seems that it is,” Deputy Prime Minister Qubad Talabani told TIME, adding that Iraq looks like it may become three separate states – Kurdistan in the north, a Sunni state through central Iraq and a Shia state in the south.
Kurdish Prime Minister Barzani told the BBC it would be “almost impossible” for Iraq to go back to the way it was before the ISIL advances.
“Regarding a solution, is for the Sunni areas to decide, but the best model is to have a Sunni region like we have in Kurdistan,” Barzani told Rudaw.
Kurds suffered under Saddam Hussein: Between 3,200 and 5,000 people died when Hussein ordered a gas attacks on the Kurds in 1988, and between 50,000 and 100,000 more were killed or disappeared during a seven-month campaign that completely wiped out villages.
The Iraqi Special Tribunal charged Hussein with genocide in April 2006, but was never tried. He was executed on Dec. 30, 2006 after the tribunal convicted him of him crimes against humanity for the 1982 murders of 148 Shiites in Dujali, north of Baghdad.
But since Hussein’s fall, Iraq’s Kurdistan region thrived – largely thanks to the oil industry. It’s grown about 10 per cent annually, according to an Oct. 2013 report in the New York Times.
International oil companies are pouring billions of dollars into Iraqi Kurdistan, home to about 45 billion barrels of oil, according to Forbes magazine.
And the Kurds have built a new pipeline to Turkey that will eventually allow 400,000 barrels per day to flow to the Turkish port of Ceyhan.
Turkey, which has a collegial relationship with Iraq’s Kurds but not its own Kurdish population, supports the possibility of Iraqi Kurdistan independence. Huseyin Celik, spokesperson for Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party, told Rudaw the people of Iraqi Kurdistan “would have the right to self-determination like other nations” if Iraq splits apart. But he said Turkey would rather Iraq stay united.
With files form The Associated Press