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I snuck into Kurdistan, in 2002, on an old smugglers’ route. There was no legal way to get there, so I’d flown to Iran, taken a second flight to its western border, driven a couple hours, signed a log book in a hut acknowledging that I’d left Iran, then walked across a dirt road into the raw wilderness of northern Iraq. There were no buildings in sight, let alone border security, immigration, or even road signs—just vistas of craggy mountains.
The Kurds, who make up nearly twenty per cent of Iraq’s population, had been isolated from the world for more than a decade, since the United Nations imposed sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s regime in 1991. They had also been isolated from the rest of Iraq, as punishment for challenging Saddam’s rule. He squeezed them even harder than the world squeezed him. The Kurds’ regional governments suddenly had to fend for themselves.
The Kurds are a resourceful people. One of my early stops on that trip was at a little oil refinery built from cannibalized parts of a sugar refinery, a soft-drink plant, and a cement factory; it pumped three thousand barrels a day. Its slogan was “Where there’s a well, there’s a way.” Stranded without passports, Kurds had begged and borrowed from countries where they had been educated or had relatives. The prime minister had become a Brit, the minister of education a Swede, and the minister of human rights a German. I met others who had Belgian, French, Italian, Spanish, Austrian, and Swiss papers.
With no access to Iraq’s postal system, Kurdish entrepreneurs launched Internet cafés with unrestricted access to the Web, then forbidden in Saddam’s Iraq. Newspapers proliferated; satellite-television stations (also banned in the rest of Iraq) brought in the outside world. I watched the U.S. election returns at the prime minister’s home, as he switched between CNN and Fox.
During the ten days of that trip, Kurdish leaders repeatedly claimed that they didn’t favor forging their own country, despite their hatred for Saddam, distrust of Baghdad, and deepening Kurdish nationalism. They had learned in the previous decade how hard it was, as a landlocked territory twice the size of New Jersey, to go it alone. They had become utterly beholden—at a high price—to the political preferences and economic priorities of their neighbors Iran and Turkey.
“There is a desire and will to preserve the unity and territorial integrity of this country within the state of Iraq,” Massoud Barzani, the head of the Kurdish Democratic Party, explained when I visited his mountaintop headquarters in Salahuddin, near Irbil. “We never asked for an independent Kurdish state.” Barzani, who still wore the baggy trousers and elaborate, layered turban of tribal Kurds, is the son of the dagger-wielding warrior who led the Kurdish resistance movement in the nineteen-sixties and seventies. Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, was just as adamant. “What we have is not stable or permanent,” he told me in Sulaymaniyah. “We need to reunite with Iraq for a permanent democratic life.” Talabani later became Iraq’s President, after Saddam was ousted and Baghdad launched its rocky democratic experiment.
But even in 2002 the Kurds were drifting into an autonomous statelet. The Kurdish language was making a comeback in government offices and workplaces, displacing Arabic. The school curriculum was Kurdicized; the younger generation barely identified with Iraq. Levies from smuggling and illicit trade produced revenues of a million dollars a day; even trucks exporting goods from Saddam-land to Turkey had to pay bribes to win passage. The Kurds had their own flag, too—a big sun emblazoned over red, white, and green stripes.
So, a dozen years later, it isn’t surprising that the Kurds now increasingly appear to be decoupling from Iraq, whether formally or de facto. When I returned, four months ago, this time on a direct flight from Istanbul to Sulaymaniyah, Kurdistan had evolved from the least developed part of Iraq to its most stable and prosperous region. I stayed at a new five-star hotel and attended a conference at the new American University of Sulaymaniyah, which brought together panellists from around the world. The Kurds also have a new pipeline for transporting oil to Turkey, which could result in exports of up to four hundred thousand barrels a year, with an estimated forty-five billion barrels of crude in reserve.
The Kurds have many reasons to split off. They’re furious with Baghdad, which since January has refused to fork over the Kurds’ share of the national kitty. They’re terrified of the sweeping territorial conquests by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), an Al Qaeda offshoot, which is now poised along a six-hundred-mile border with Kurdistan that the Iraqi Army abruptly abandoned last month. And they’re engaged in a war of words with Iraq’s Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, about stepping aside to let a new government salvage the nation. Last week, Maliki accused the Kurds of aiding ISIS militants. He fired all the Kurds in his cabinet, including the stalwart Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
“He has become hysterical and has lost his balance,” Barzani, who is now Kurdistan’s President, said in an unusually peppery statement on July 10th. “He is doing everything he can to justify his failures and put the blame on others.” Barzani noted that Maliki himself had once taken refuge from Saddam’s dictatorship in Kurdistan—and that others were now taking refuge from Maliki. Barzani also told the BBC, “Iraq is effectively partitioned now. Are we supposed to stay in this tragic situation?”
Barzani has demanded a referendum, so that Kurds can vote on breaking with Baghdad. It may be a risky ploy, perhaps as leverage to retain control of oil-rich Kirkuk, a disputed city that Kurdish Peshmerga fighters seized in mid-June after the Iraqi Army fled. Kurds have long claimed Kirkuk, as have the Arabs. Under Saddam, Baghdad went to bizarre lengths to Arabize the city, threatening Kurds until they quit their jobs, turned over housing, and fled to nearby Kurdistan. Arabs were even offered rewards for reburying ancestors in Kirkuk, to create historic claims to the land.
A unified Iraq is still salvageable, but barely—and only if Baghdad accommodates the Kurds’ long-ignored demands, including control and sales of oil resources, greater political autonomy, a greater say in Iraqi politics, and freedom to arm and use their Peshmerga security forces. “Kurdistan could be part of Iraq if Iraq can become a decent, stable country,” a leading Kurd, who has held positions in both the regional and national governments, told me on Monday. “But, if Iraq is torn apart by sectarian strife, the Kurds will go on their own journey. To be fair, this is the dynamic of the Kurdish reality since 1991. It’s a dual-track policy of working on self-government while developing attributes of a stable region where Kurds rule but remain part of Iraq.”
Most of the outside world opposes Kurdish independence, because of the precedent it would set and the potential instability it would create. It’s one issue about which the United States, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, and China—despite their profound differences over Syria—all agree.
If the Kurds do hold a poll, the outcome is predictable. In 2005, they voted in an informal referendum that coincided with Iraq’s first democratic parliamentary elections. Ninety-eight per cent favored independence.
If Kurdistan secedes, it could become the hundred and ninety-fourth member of the United Nations, finally achieving the statehood promised (and reneged on) by the Allied Powers after the First World War. The Kurds, now split up in strategic corners of Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran (with smatterings extending from Lebanon to Russia), would no longer be the world’s largest minority without a state.
Photograph: Safin Hamed/AFP/Getty