When former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein sent his troops to invade neighbouring Kuwait on 2 August 1990, many Iraqis feared that their eccentric leader had plunged into a new adventure that would put their country in danger. However, for the country’s autonomy seeking Kurds, the onslaught was a heaven-sent gift as it opened a window of opportunity for their long-awaited independence from Iraq.
The first reaction from Jalal Talabani, an exiled Kurdish leader at the time who returned to Iraq following the US-led invasion in 2003, was that the Iraqi dictator was riding the back of the tiger, meaning that he had got himself into trouble that would be difficult to get out of without lasting damage to the country.
Hoshyar Zebari, then an exiled Kurdish spokesman and later Iraq's post-Saddam foreign minister, recalled in an interview that the invasion of Kuwait was the moment when the Iraqi Kurds felt that the time for their liberation had finally come.
From that time on, Iraqi Kurdish leaders, who had always said they would “partner with the devil” for the sake of Kurdistan as they waged a relentless guerrilla war against successive Iraqi governments, learned a new lesson: how to achieve their historic ambitions by taking advantage of the Iraqi leaders' gruesome strategic blunders and the regional and international reactions these have provoked.
Only six months later and after Iraq's defeat in the Gulf War, much of the Kurdish leaders' opportunistic enthusiasm bore fruit when the Kurds succeeded in setting up their first autonomous government after US and British forces had created a “safe haven” in northern Iraq to protect them against Saddam.
Without Saddam's folly in playing hard ball with world powers and threatening their interests, the Iraqi Kurds could never have enjoyed such good fortune.
In 2003, the Kurds again had a rendezvous with luck when the US-led invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam made them realise that their dream of seceding from Iraq was now inching forward.
The post-Saddam Iraqi constitution recognised the Kurdish northern enclave as the federal Kurdistan Region that enjoyed full autonomy. Soon afterwards, ths Kurds moved to turn the autonomous region into a semi-independent entity with its own flag, president, prime minister and parliament. They also created their own army, security forces, and intelligence services, and operated their own airports and border points.
Since the US-led invasion, the Kurdish leaders have done everything they can to fulfill their ambitions. Kurdistan president Masoud Barzani has warned that the Kurds will seek independence if the new relationship with Baghdad does not stand the test of time. Behind the scenes, he has been working hard to make the date of Kurdish independence grow nearer.
In February this year, the Kurdish media quoted an advisor to Barzani as saying that the Kurdish leader was preparing to declare Kurdistan an independent state "in the near future."
The Kurds have had to wait 11 years for Saddam's successors as the rulers of Iraq to make terrible miscalculations that they can exploit to push their independence scheme further.
The country’s Shia and Sunni leaders have made enormous mistakes in their struggle for power and wealth, and earlier this month as Sunni rebels overran government security forces and took control of several cities, the Iraqi Kurds finally acted on their plans and seized the oil-rich city of Kirkuk and a large chunk of territory bordering their enclave, vowing that they would never give it back to Iraq.
It has long been assumed that the failure of the Shia and Sunnis to resolve their disputes would push Iraq into “soft-partitioning” as the only means of avoiding a fully-fledged civil war and the growing threat of a regional flare-up.
But the swift Kurdish use of the standoff and the move to expand their control over huge swaths of land has raised eyebrows, making it seem that the Kurds have been ahead of the curve and may have gone too far in exploiting Iraq's chaos.
According to the Kurdish narrative, Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts in Kirkuk and other areas after the Sunni group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) militants advanced, allowing Kurdish Peshmergas quickly to fill the security vacuum. The Kurds claimed that Kirkuk and its nearby oilfields needed protection from ISIL, which had just captured several predominantly Sunni cities and was sweeping toward Baghdad.
The international media, however, has reported that the Peshmergas tricked the Iraqi army troops in these areas, claiming to offer them help only to overrun their camps and expel them towards Baghdad. The Peshmergas later seized Iraqi army bases and confiscated their weapons and equipment in scenes reminiscent of Kurdish pillaging of Iraqi army camps and other government installations following the fall of Saddam in 2003.
Moreover, some Iraqis have accused the Kurds of being behind the recent fall of cities into the hands of Sunni rebels allied with ISIL. The country’s Shia media and politicians have been pointing the finger at the Kurdish leaders for what they claim has been their complicity in a regional conspiracy to topple the Shia-led government and divide Iraq.
They point to the anti-government Sunni leaders of armed groups who were given sanctuary in Kurdistan where they have been directing their political and propaganda campaign against the Baghdad government.
Whatever the truth may be, by exploiting Iraq's turmoil the Kurds have created further facts on the ground in order to establish their long-desired independent state. One of Kurdistan's major steps toward independence was beginning to sell its oil unilaterally last month. As a result, Kurdistan is currently exporting 125,000 barrels of oil a day, a figure that is expected to more than triple to 400,000 barrels by year's end. This lucrative sale, which would make Kurdistan financially independent from Iraq, was widely seen as a last straw in relations between Iraq’s Arab majority and the minority Kurds.
The Kurds have lived for centuries in the generally mountainous areas of Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Armenia and Syria. They believe themselves to be the descendants of ancient tribes belonging to the Iranian branch of the large family of Indo-European races. The Kurds trace themselves back to the Medes who founded a kingdom that captured Nineveh, the capital of the ancient Assyrian empire, in 612 BCE, before being conquered in turn in 550 BCE by Cyrus the Great who established the Iranian dynasty of the Achaemenids.
But while the Kurds remain an ethnicity with a distinct culture and language, the term Kurdistan, which literally means the land of the Kurds, remains controversial. Historians agree that human settlements in the area go back to the era of the Akkadians who ruled Mesopotamia, or ancient Iraq. The area remained strongly unitary in nature during the rule of the ancient Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian and Islamic kingdoms and throughout the period of the Ottoman Empire, which also kept the country in one piece.
In recent history, the Iraqi Kurds have fought successive Iraqi governments since the birth of modern Iraq in 1920 and after they lost an opportunity to have an independent state following the break-up of the Ottoman Empire. Under Saddam, though the Kurds enjoyed minimum cultural rights they suffered oppression and military crackdowns, including chemical weapons attacks.
Since their seizure of vast areas following the recent crisis, Kurdish leaders have repeatedly vowed that their control over the new territory is irreversible. While no one would doubt that Kurdistan is now on an irrevocable track towards independence, the question remains of how much this will affect Iraq and the rest of the region.
It is doubtful that the Iraqi Shia and Sunnis will accept the new border with Kurdistan if it is defined unilaterally by the Kurds. Both Arab communities have resisted attempts by the Kurds to annex Kirkuk and other cities, which they consider to be Iraqi regardless of their populations' ethnicities. Supreme Shia leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani has even decreed that the future of Kirkuk and the territories should not be "subject to negotiation."
A further question is whether Kurdistan can be a truly sovereign state, or by splitting from Iraq the Kurds are only changing an old subordination to domination or influence by another powerful nation. Neighbouring Iran, which has a large independence-seeking Kurdish minority of its own, is expected to be wary of the Iraqi Kurds' ambitions and will try to torpedo efforts to set up a feasible Kurdish state which it will see as a potential ally for Turkey and the United States.
Turkey is already embroiled in Iraq's disputes and is also believed to be entertaining geostrategic ambitions in Iraq. Turkey had stakes in Iraq, and during the British occupation in the 1920s Ankara laid claims to the city of Mosul as a former Ottoman vellyat, or province, seeing it as including all the present-day Kurdish region.
Ever since the US-led invasion, Ankara has been a key regional actor in Iraq, apparently trying to counterbalance Shia Iran’s enormous power in its southern neighbour. Relations between Ankara and Baghdad have been strained since Iraqi Shia prime minister Nuri al-Maliki's government tried to arrest Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi in 2012, forcing him to flee to Turkey.
Ankara helped convince Iraqi Sunni leaders including al-Hashimi to join al-Maliki’s government that ended nine months of political deadlock after inconclusive national elections in March 2010. Ties further deteriorated as a result of Iraqi Kurdistan starting to export its oil through Turkish Mediterranean ports in May this year, with Turkey being the key collaborator in facilitating Kurdish oil sales.
Many Iraqis believe that Turkey had a role in the seizure of Mosul by Sunni rebels. There are also signs that Ankara supports moves by Kurdistan to seize Iraqi towns even though some of them are densely populated by Turkomen, an ethnic minority group of Turkish origin that for centuries has braved Arab and Kurdish attempts at domination.
Last week Kurdish news outlet Rudaw quoted Huseyin Celik, a spokesman for Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), as saying that the Iraqi Kurds "have the right to decide the future of their land."
Attention has also focused on Ankara's foreign policy in Iraq after reports circulated by pro-AKP Turkish media reported in 2012 that Iraq could be partitioned into two "sections", with Sunni Arabs and Kurds being put in one and Shia Arabs in another.
The reports suggested that the Sunni Arab-Kurdish section could be under Turkish influence, while the Shia section could be placed under the influence of Iran. The revelations coincided with remarks made by Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu, who called for a dialogue with Iran "to avert sectarian conflicts" in the region.
At first glance, the Kurds' achievement in taking the territory disputed with the Arabs by exploiting the chaos in Iraq could be a cause for national celebration, but the prospects for a viable, defendable and unitary Kurdish state remain uncertain.
In addition to challenges by powerful neighbours, the Kurds face huge domestic problems. They are sharply split on political, tribal, and linguistic lines, and they will be faced with daunting decisions concerning their future in a tumultuous region.
These decisions should be guided by a risk-benefit analysis of statehood. In a new Middle East, where nations are shaped by internal upheavals and regional and international politics, the risk-to-benefit ratio of Kurdish statehood in Iraq can only grow.
This story was first published in Ahram Weekly.