This new reality on the ground leaves the country’s Kurds, who see both perils -- but also opportunities -- in the mayhem, with hard choices to make. Photo: AP
So far, the Kurds of Iraq are seen as the only true winners of the mayhem that erupted in the country last week. But with the Sunni insurgency fortified in neighboring areas, how will the Kurds adjust themselves and what options do they have?
SULAIMANI, Kurdistan Region - Despite the Iraqi army’s aerial raid on jihadist bases in and around Mosul, there are so far no clear signs of retreat for the array of insurgents who have seized much of Iraq’s Sunni-populated territories.
Families who fled Mosul earlier last week are slowly returning to the fallen city, which is now managed by a cocktail of “radical and moderate” rebellious Sunni factions. Some reports suggest that the insurgency is run only in part by the petrifying gunmen of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The bulk of the insurgency has been characterized as a “revolt” by the Sunni minority of a Shiite-led country.
This new reality on the ground leaves the country’s Kurds, who see both perils -- but also opportunities -- in the mayhem, with hard choices to make.
A clear majority of Kurds, although unmistakably not part of the bloody sectarian battle between Sunnis and Shiites, identify themselves as Sunnis. But since the fall of the former regime in 2003, Kurds have effectively been in government coalitions with the country’s Shiites, who would unlikely be able to govern Iraq without the direct blessing of the powerful Kurdish factions in the north.
With the Sunnis strengthening their roots in the bordering areas through insurgency, Kurdish political parties have followed the events with a watchful eye, leaving all options open.
“If the Sunni insurgents become a reality in these areas, we have to come to terms with them, or at least, we should then see them as a new force,” says Arif Taifour, a senior member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the largest Kurdish party.
But the general mood among Kurds is still very hostile towards ISIS militants.
“This is a terrorist organization. Kurds have historically been victims of terrorism, this is why we see ISIS as a terrorist group and should fight against them,” says Saadi Pira, a senior member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), another major Kurdish party.
There have been no major clashes so far between the insurgents and Kurdish forces. ISIS’s main goal has been to push the Iraqi army as far back into the Shiite regions as possible. Sunni insurgents have publically not been critical of the Peshmarga’s march on the disputed territories -- at least for now.
“It would be a mistake to fight the ISIS at this stage,” says Taifour, who is also Iraq’s deputy parliament speaker. “We should defend our own Kurdish territories outside the Kurdistan Region and not become part of the religious fight in Iraq,” he cautions.
But he believes that “sooner or later” the jihadists will turn their guns against the Kurds. “We should not give them the benefit of the doubt.”
“The insurgents take different shapes, but share the same values. They do not negotiate, but spread terror among defenseless people.”
Taifour says that ISIS would “harm” the Kurdish cause, if given the chance. “Kurds should move carefully not to give them the reason to destabilize our region.”
“It is not just about the ISIS. Every other Sunni group, including the former Baathists, are with the insurgents as well,” Taifour explains.
The Kurdish Islamic parties have similar views. They prefer a “wait and see” policy to an open war against the militants.
“The ISIS and other Sunni factions will either be pushed out of Mosul by the Iraqi army, or stay there and make sure Iraq is divided into three states,” says a senior member of the Islamic Union of Kurdistan, Aboubakr Haladni.
“This is why we should be prepared for every possibility, but should not take part in any wars at the moment.”
Similar views are expressed by Kurdistan’s other Islamic parties.
The stakes for neighboring countries are high as well.
Iran has publically condemned the insurgency and declared its support for the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki. Reliable Sources tell Rudaw that an Iranian delegation arrived in the Kurdistan Region last week to talk the Kurds into military action against the jihadists.
On Monday, Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani was discussing the turmoil in Iraq with Iran’s top military officials, according to Iranian media reports.
Sources tell Rudaw that Maliki has also urged the PUK for assistance in an onslaught against the militant Islamists. So far, the KDP has rejected any collaboration with Baghdad. Kurdistan President Massoud Barzani, who is also head of the KDP, has stated that he wants to rally support for a united Kurdish front.
“We have paid a heavy price in the past by supporting Maliki. Iran clearly would like us to engage in war against the insurgents,” KDP’s Taifour said. “But we do not see it as strategically sound for our cause.”