The collapse of Baghdad's control of northern Iraq in the face of an offensive by militant group ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) has allowed the Kurds to take the historic capital Kirkuk, and suddenly put them closer than ever to their goal: an independent state of their own.
The Kurds have a winning card in the conflict -- their intact armed forces, known as the Peshmerga.
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters have long honed their skills fighting for independence from Iraq. Now they are in the front line against ISIL but many believe the Kurds are restraining their forces because of a struggle with Baghdad over revenue-sharing and oil exports.
Kurdistan seized the opportunity of ISIS’s takeover of several Iraqi cities in recent weeks, and planned to increase its oil exports, flouting the objections of Baghdad while it struggles to quell the violent insurgency.
AFP reported that Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region formed a new government on Wednesday after months of wrangling, with Premier Nechirvan Barzani using the occasion to call for the defence of disputed northern territory.
The Kurds have now expanded the territory they control by as much as 40 percent, which has posed questions whether the Kurds see the crisis in Iraq as an opportunity for independence.
Does ISIL affect Kurds too?
Sofia Barbarani, a freelance journalist specialising in the Kurdistan region, told Ahram Online that the Kurds of Iraq have been largely insulated from the violence that has engulfed north Iraq.
“While understanding the gravity of the problem, a lot of Kurds have taken this opportunity as a step towards realising their goal of independence and reclaiming the disputed territories” Barbarani said.
A Kurdish expert based in Brussels who requested anonymity told Ahram Online that the autonomous region is not fully part of Iraq, but is not completely immune from militant violence.
"We have our own language; our own foreign policy, and our own army," he said.
"However, ISIL affects us too; they've committed many terror attacks in Kurdistan. Just last week they blew up a Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) party gathering, and 30 people died," he added.
“Kirkuk is basically what Kurds wanted; it’s the Jerusalem of Kurds,” he added.
Iraqi Kurds want to incorporate Kirkuk province into their autonomous region, a move that Baghdad strongly opposes in a bitter, long-running dispute between the two sides.
“The Kurds will expand a little, taking some territory back north, west and east of Mosul, but they probably won't take Mosul itself. Mosul is majority Sunni and it will be difficult to take,” he added.
Nussaibah Younis, an Iraq specialist at Harvard’s Belfer Center for International Affairs, told Ahram Online that the Kurds are fortunate to have established security over the territories that comprise the federal region, and so are much less vulnerable to ISIL than the rest of Iraq.
“I do think, however, that the Kurds need to take ISIL incredibly seriously, because they are controlling territory that neighbours Kurdish territory and they could pose a serious threat to the Kurdish region,” she told Ahram Online.
“I think the Kurds will not have the luxury of sitting out this civil war as they did in 2005-2006,” she added.
The violence in Iraq since last week has also pushed oil prices higher.
“Now that Iraqi Kurds have control over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, independence is more viable than ever and I think it is just a matter of time before the Kurds declare their independence,” Younis argued.
The Peshmerga’s role
Kurdish officials said on Tuesday that the autonomous region’s armed forces, the Peshmerga -- the term literally means ‘those who confront death’ -- are in control of all claimed but disputed territories in Nineveh and Kirkuk, but facing a harder task in Diyala, which is a stronghold of armed Islamist groups in Iraq.
On Wednesday, president of the autonomous Kurdish region, Massud Barzani, called on retired fighters from the Peshmerga to sign up again to "support the forces and prepare for all possibilities."
AFP quoted Barzani as saying that: "As we needed (Kurdish unity) in the year 2003 to protect the gains of our people, today we need the same stance to protect the areas of Kurdistan outside the administration of the region."
Younis told Ahram Online that she believes the Peshmerga will only play a role in the conflict if the Kurdistan regional government reaches an accommodation with the government in Baghdad over outstanding political issues, such as revenue sharing of oil exports.
“Until this happens, I don't believe the Kurds will be willing to incur losses in order to help defend the government in Baghdad,” Younis added.
But Younis argues that the US will be pressuring the Kurds to come to a settlement with Baghdad so that the Peshmerga and Iraqi security forces can attack ISIL together, not least because the Peshmerga has proven to be a far more effective fighting force that the Iraqi army.
On Wednesday Iraq asked the United States to carry out air strikes on Sunni jihadists, who attacked the country's main oil refinery and seized more territory in the north.
Barbarani told Ahram Online that while the Kurdistan regional government allegedly refused to answer Baghdad's call for military help, the Peshmerga have clashed with ISIL in numerous occasions but only in disputed areas.
“I think the Peshmerga's main role will be to protect the Kurdish areas and any minority based there. They are unlikely to go out of their way to protect Iraq proper,” Barbarani concludes.