As Sunni insurgents have sent Iraq’s Shia controlled military south at a rapid clip, Kurdish leaders have taken advantage of the power vacuum in cities like Kirkuk. The Wall Street Journal reports that as government forces fled, Kurdish troops began occupying key positions with no sign they’ll withdraw if or when the conflict between the Sunnis and Shiites is over.
As thousands of Iraqi soldiers fled this oil-rich province in the face of advancing Sunni jihadists last week, the region’s Kurdish Gov. Nejmaldin Karim met behind blast walls with his security chiefs.
Their decision: to order Kurdish forces, the Peshmerga, to advance from nearby cities, occupy Iraqi bases and secure the Kirkuk oil field.
“It was very quick,” said Mr. Karim, a 30-year former resident of Washington. “To describe the last week as a change is an understatement. Things have turned upside-down.”
In the days since the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, seized swaths of Iraqi territory, the implications of their startling advance is only starting to come into focus. But one thing is clear: The Kirkuk operation brings the Kurds, who make up 20% of Iraq’s population, closer than ever to their dream of an independent state.
The gambit expands the sway of the semiautonomous Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government in the north and shows how Iraq’s current conflict is altering the political landscape in ways that could be difficult to reverse.
The Kurds’ gains, which analysts say expand their territory by more than a third, have also brought challenges barely imaginable just days ago. Peshmerga forces are now defending a new 620-mile border against Sunni insurgents.
But the gains also have fostered a palpable sense of optimism and pride here among Kurds, who view Kirkuk as their cultural and political capital.
“I feel like the time has arrived for Kirkuk to rejoin the Kurdistan region,” said Shorsh Khalid Ahmed, a 30-year-old government employee. “The time for Kurdistan’s independence is closer than anytime before.”