From Tribe to Nation: Iraqi Kurdistan on the Cusp of Statehood
Kurdistan Rising? Considerations for Kurds, Their Neighbors, and the Region
The battle for Mosul has begun. For the past two years, Iraq’s second-largest city has languished under the harsh rule of the Islamic State (ISIS). Now a combined force of Iraqi army troops, Shiite militias, and Kurdish fighters, backed up by a US-led coalition of more than sixty nations, is pushing forward to retake the city. The stakes are high. Dislodging ISIS from the city where its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared his “caliphate” in 2014 promises to be a formidable undertaking, given the ferocity of resistance so far. But if the coalition manages to restore Iraqi government control over Mosul, it will certainly count as a major blow to the ambitions of the jihadists—even if final victory over them is still a long way off.
So far the campaign appears to be going well. Yet its initial successes—to be expected, perhaps, in a situation where the attackers outnumber the defenders by more than twenty to one—cannot conceal the fact that the members of the anti-ISIS forces in Iraq have strikingly divergent interests. The United States and its Western allies are concerned above all with thwarting the Islamic State’s ability to stage terrorist attacks against them. Preserving the territorial integrity of Iraq, while important, is a secondary aim. The Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, is intent on restoring his government’s sovereignty over the country as a whole and reasserting, along the way, the dominance of the Shiite majority over a restive Sunni minority that, at least for a time, saw the Islamic State as a protector of its interests.
And then there are the Kurds. For the past twenty-five years, since a crucial intervention following the first Gulf War by the United States to protect them from Saddam Hussein’s killings, the 5.5 million Kurds of northern Iraq have been quietly running their own affairs. Currently some 40,000 Kurdish troops are taking active part in the effort to retake Mosul, and dozens have died since the operation began. But the peshmerga, as the Iraqi Kurdish militias are known, are not fighting to preserve Iraq. They are fighting to remove a major threat to their own homeland, the three northern provinces that make up the Kurdish Region of Iraq. The Islamic State, which is dominated by Salafist Sunni Arabs, has always regarded the Kurds as mortal enemies, and when the jihadists staged their surprise attack on Mosul in the summer of 2014, the momentum of their offensive brought them within just a few miles of the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Erbil. It took a series of hasty American air strikes to stop the jihadists from going further.
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