Watch Out for Kurdistan

"Watch out for Kurdistan," I tell everyone I know. It may take a few years, but Iraq will be cut up into two, possibly three, countries – and the Kurds will be the first to go.

Already, northern Iraq is hardly one with the rest of the country. In the provisional capital of Arbil, the red, green, and white Kurdish flag is everywhere; the Iraqi flag is nowhere to be seen. Signs on buildings proclaim: "Kurdistan Health Ministry" and "Kurdistan Education Ministry." The streets are patrolled – not by American soldiers in Humvees and tanks – but by Kurdish peshmerga guerillas with AK-47s. If they see someone who even looks Arab, they stop him as a suspected terrorist.

Iraqi Kurds are hardly happy with this arrangement, though. Whatever the result of negotiations over Iraq’s new government, Kurds are poised to push hard for independence.

A day after the election, organizers from Kurdistan’s two major political parties were already touring refugee camps in oil-rich Kirkuk, with a petition asking Kurds whether they support ethnic federalism in Iraq or Kurdish independence. Within days, 1.9 million Kurds – almost half of all Kurdish adults in Iraq – had signed up for independence.

At the same time, the leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, Masoud Barzani, told reporters in his mountain fortress: "An independent Kurdish state will be formed, but I do not know the exact time."

Central to the Kurds’ drive for independence is the multi-ethnic city of Kirkuk, with an estimated 8.5 billion barrels of oil under its soil (at the current prices, about $450 billion). During the 1980s, Saddam killed and displaced tens of thousands of the city’s Kurds and replaced them with Arabs loyal to his regime. Now, Kurds control the city.

In 2003, when the U.S. military invaded Iraq, Kurdish peshmerga fought alongside U.S. soldiers and kicked the Iraqi army out of Kirkuk. Today, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) is the most powerful force in the city. Its peshmerga make up the bulk of the police force and control most of the hiring decisions in the local government and at the country’s Northern Oil company.

The Kurds’ position was strengthened by January’s election. With Arab political parties boycotting the polls, Kurds easily won control of the local government. That local government is currently mobilizing a referendum on whether the city should be part of Iraqi Kurdistan – with 100,000 Kurdish refugees allowed to vote.

It’s all part of a move toward an independent state. "First, it will go to referendum," explains Dr. Azad Aslan, a political scientist at Arbil’s Salahudin University. "Then we will control the oil, which provides an engine for the Kurdish economy. Then we will declare independence."

Like most Kurds, Dr. Aslan isn’t afraid of a civil war that might erupt over Kurdish plans for secession, and he doesn’t think that neighboring Turkey, Syria, and Iran – all of which oppose Kurdish statehood – will be able to intervene. "If the United States weren’t here, maybe one would have doubts [about Turkish, Syrian, or Iranian intervention], but now the United States is the real power here in Iraq as a whole. If you apply pressure, you are going at the United States."

Kurds feel the United States will support them, because they continue to support the U.S. military presence in Iraq. As pressure grows for American soldiers to leave the center and south, they figure, the Bush administration will be forced to support an independent Kurdistan as the price of keeping U.S. troops, peacefully, in the north.