Graeme Wood

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Breaking Away

The Atlantic, May 2007. With a map by Ryan Morris.

With time, Arab Iraq is looking less and less like a country, and Kurdish Iraq is looking more and more like one. Since 2003, Kurdish negotiators have quietly compelled Baghdad to acknowledge the Kurdish parliament, ministries, and 100,000-strong peshmerga army—in effect, to let the Kurds be Kurds first and Iraqis second, if at all.

As a method for unmaking Iraq, patient political maneuvering has served the Kurds well—certainly better than the grisly carnival of fanaticism and killing that’s taken place throughout the rest of the country. But the stately drift of Kurdistan away from the rest of Iraq may be nearing its end. The problem is one of territory.

The official border of Iraq’s Kurdistan region roughly follows the outline of three Iraqi provinces (Dohuk, Erbil, and Sulaimaniya) populated almost exclusively by Kurds. But it contains almost none of the Kurdish-majority territory extending into the adjacent Nineveh, Tamim, and Diyala provinces. At least in theory, the Kurds have engineered a political answer to this problem: The Iraqi constitution stipulates that these provinces may vote on whether to join the Kurdish region, if at least 10 percent of the residents of each province petition to do so. At a minimum, it appears that Tamim—the province centered on Kirkuk, which sits atop more than enough oil to support an independent Kurdish state—will vote this year on whether to join Kurdistan.

During the 1970s and ’80s, Saddam Hussein forcibly removed thousands of Kurds from these disputed provinces. Arabs, generally from poor Shia areas in southern Iraq, replaced them, ensuring Arab domination of oil-rich areas. Since 2003, tens of thousands of Kurds have washed back in—especially into Tamim, where many live in shantytowns on Kirkuk’s outskirts, or in one of its soccer stadiums, which now houses hundreds. When the Iraqi constitution was being written in 2005, it was unclear whether returning Kurds would be permitted to vote in a referendum. In Tamim, it now looks certain that they will, and as a result Tamim will almost certainly tip Kurdish when the ballots are cast.

The redrawing of borders is seldom painless, and it is unlikely to proceed as quietly as other Kurdish steps toward independence—neither Sunnis nor Shia will react passively to a successful Kurdish referendum. The map to the right indicates the major flash points that could pit Kurd against Arab over land and oil. (The Iraqi constitution reserves existing oil fields for the central government, and the referendum in Tamim would not change that. But many observers look upon the enfeebled Baghdad government and believe that sanctioned Kurdish control of the lands above the oil would make the subsequent assertion of exclusive oil rights easier and more likely.)

Turkey has repeatedly threatened to invade Iraqi Kurdistan and seize Kirkuk to prevent an economically viable Kurdish state just south of Turkey’s own restive Kurdish region. The threat is plausible—Turkish special forces have had a uniformed presence at a U.S. air base in Kirkuk, and more than 200,000 Turkish troops are deployed on the Kurdish border—but a Turkish invasion would also virtually guarantee insurrection and guerrilla warfare by Kurds in Turkey itself. In addition, Turkey would lose a valuable trade partner; Turkish firms have invested heavily in northern Iraq.

The Turkish threat is one reason many analysts doubt the Kurds will follow a legal territorial expansion with immediate secession. Still, timing is everything. If the Kurds wait too long to seek independence, their U.S. guarantors will have left, and Kurdistan will be completely at Turkey’s mercy. And even if the Kurds do not intend a decisive break now, the violence and animosity that may surround the upcoming referendum could change that sentiment. Kurdish politicians note, much to their satisfaction, that the gears of liberation can be powered by politics or by force, as the situation warrants—and moreover, that since 1991 they have never turned in reverse.

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