Terra incognita: Patience, ambiguity and crises

Kurds confront the reality of Iraq with Islamic State.

A Peshmerga soldier surveys the front line with Islamic State, at the Christian village of Talesskef, Iraqi-Kurdistan. (photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
A Peshmerga soldier surveys the front line with Islamic State, at the Christian village of Talesskef, Iraqi-Kurdistan.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
‘Iraq has no military. If they had a real military they wouldn’t leave behind all their weapons. It is the worst army in the world. They have the most cowards in the world,” says Gen. Tariq Harni.
The general is a commander in the Kurdish peshmerga, the army of the Kurdistan Regional Government of Iraq, charged with defending dozens of kilometers of front lines opposite Islamic State not far from Mosul.
Gathered with his staff officers in an abandoned house in the Christian village Talesskef, he is eager to tell the world about the situation Iraq faces a year after Islamic State swept over the Syrian border and down into the Nineveh plains, depopulating Christian villages, slaughtering Yazidis and sending a million and a half Arab refugees into the Kurdish autonomous region.
His intelligence officer is keen for him to be more modest in his words, but his men clearly approve.
The Iraqi army disintegrated when Islamic State conquered major Sunni cities last fall. Despite the massive 62-nation coalition arrayed against Islamic State, the numerous Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias and the Iraqi army, the extremists have not been on the retreat. They are entrenching in cities like Mosul, and captured Ramadi near Baghdad in May. The peshmerga, reorganized after suffering defeats in August last year, have been successfully defending a line stretching from the Syrian border to Kirkuk, more than several hundred kilometers.
The Islamic State advance created a unique situation for the autonomous Kurdish areas in Iraq. Cut off from the chaotic capital, it has been challenged economically. Electric brownouts are common in Kurdish cities, with most businesses keeping generators on hand. But it has united the Kurds against a common enemy and provided impetus to maturely discuss the movement toward independence. The all-volunteer peshmerga have become a cohesive fighting force, even if they lack heavy weapons and the men still kit themselves out with uniforms purchased at military surplus stores. They have become competent in performing security checks and manning checkpoints to keep Islamic State terrorists away. At the relatively new airport, passengers pass through no less than three security screenings.
New malls are popping up. While the peshmerga sit in their trenches and keep a keen eye on the enemy, young people relax back home and study at university.
Kurdistan has become a place of refuge for minorities and other Iraqis. Whereas in the old days Kurds were refugees fleeing Saddam Hussein’s persecutions, or fleeing Syria and Iran, today, they are the begrudging hosts. Men who once fought as guerrillas in the mountains now have offices in the capital.
With Islamic State being kept at bay, Kurds are beginning to show concerns about the rise of Iran. The Islamic Republic is backing the Shi’ite militias, who are committing atrocities against the Sunni population.
Because of a lack of Western military support for the Kurds, some fear Iran will step into the breach and wrap its tentacles around the autonomous province. On June 15, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Consular, Parliamentary and Expatriates Affairs Hassan Qashqavi held a meeting with former president and Secretary-General of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Jalal Talabani in Sulaymaniyah.
At the same time the government is preparing for elections on August 20 and a regional constitution to be presented in the late fall. Masoud Barzani of the ruling PDK has said independence is coming as he plays host to political delegations from around the region, including US Deputy Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL (Islamic State) Brett McGurk on June 9. But patience is the key; haste is not helpful. Iraq’s central government has driven Kurdistan to an economic precipice by denying the region revenues from oil. Peshmerga are sometimes not paid for months. But one gets the feeling when meeting the Kurdish soldiers, many of them in their late 30s and 40s, that even without pay these patriots who fought Saddam in the old days, would stay at their units forever to fight for their land. So the Kurds are finding new sources of oil; gas flares, in the form of spouting fires, can be seen throughout the countryside.
The regional capital, Erbil, may not have a Starbucks, but it has a KFC and a TGI Fridays.
It is safe for foreign tourists. Kurdistan government officials and average people see several major problems that must be confronted in the coming year. The first is the problem of provisioning the 1.7 million refugees, mostly Arabs, who are living in Kurdistan, some of them in refugee camps. The regional government requires funding to support them and it wants them to return home to the other Iraqi provinces. “To solve the problem of Islamic State, or the IDPs, is not with weapons or humanitarian aid. We must begin with a political solution to root out the problem,” explained one former government minister on condition of anonymity. He wants democratization and a settlement of the Syrian conflict. To defeat Islamic State they want more heavy weapons but they also want the Arabs to combat Islamic State on a religious playing field. Many Sunnis have fled places like Tikrit, Mosul and Ramadi, either due to Islamic State or because of persecution by the Shi’ite militias that “liberated” Sunni areas from Islamic State.
Kurdish leaders felt that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was a disaster for the country by trying to impose an iron fist. “We want an elected leader, not one that will solve things militarily through a police state.” Even without Maliki the Iraqi government is confiscating oil revenues from the Kurds to fund the war against Islamic State. That means the promised 17 percent of the budget, worth billions of dollars, is being kept in Baghdad. So Kurdistan is developing its own oil fields but cannot export the oil without the consent of Baghdad; meaning that gas for cars is cheap, about seven cents a liter.
Kurdistan would prefer a way to export its own oil and be armed directly by the Western powers. In a sense the democratic and relative peace of Kurdistan is encumbered by an albatross consisting of Islamic State, the Baghdad government and the refugees flooding its provinces.
Independence, which political figures says is a right of the Kurds to choose for themselves, will come if they continue to see a deterioration in Baghdad. Already the de facto nature of their independence is clear in the flags: Iraqi flags are almost nonexistent in the Kurdish region. If Kurdistan declares independence prematurely it fears meddling and destabilization from Iran, Turkey, Syria and by Iraq. With so much to lose, it is clear why the pragmatic leadership is moving slowly, slower than most of the people would probably like.