The New Yorker Magazine
A Reporter at Large September 29, 2014 Issue
The Fight of Their Lives
The White House wants the Kurds to help save Iraq from ISIS. The Kurds may be more interested in breaking away.
By Dexter Filkins
Masoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdish regional government. In July, he told the Kurdish parliament, “The time has come to decide our fate, and we should not wait for other people to decide it for us.” Masoud Barzani, the President of the Kurdish regional government. In July, he told the Kurdish parliament, “The time has come to decide our fate, and we should not wait for other people to decide it for us.” Credit Photograph by Moises Saman / Magnum
On the evening of August 8th, Najat Ali Saleh, a former commander of the Kurdish army, was summoned to a meeting with Masoud Barzani, the President of the semiautonomous Kurdish region that occupies the northern part of Iraq. Barzani, a longtime guerrilla fighter, was alarmed. Twenty-four hours before, fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) had made a huge incursion into the Kurds’ territory. They had overrun Kurdish forces in the western Iraqi towns of Sinjar and Makhmour, and had surged as far as Gwer, fifteen miles from the capital city of Erbil. At the Mosul Dam, on the Tigris River, they had seized the controls, giving them the ability to inundate Baghdad with fifteen feet of water. The Kurdish army is known throughout the region for its ferocity—its fighters are called peshmerga, or “those who face death”—and the defeat had been a humiliation. “We were totally unprepared for what happened,” Saleh told me. Kurdish leaders were so incensed that they relieved five commanders of their posts and detained them for interrogation. “It would have been better for them if they had fought to the death,” he said.
Saleh, a veteran of the Kurds’ wars against Saddam Hussein, was being called back into service. His orders were to retake Makhmour and keep going, pushing back ISIS fighters wherever he found them. Working quickly, he gathered several thousand soldiers, surrounded the city, and went in. By the next day, Makhmour was in Kurdish hands; in the following weeks, the Kurds forced ISIS fighters out of twenty surrounding villages. When I saw Saleh, on a recent visit, his men had just recaptured a village called Baqert. With mortars still thudding nearby, he exuded a heavy calm, cut by anger. I asked him if he’d taken any prisoners. “Only dead,” he said.
The fighting between ISIS and the Kurds stretches along a six-hundred-and-fifty-mile front in northeastern Iraq—a jagged line that roughly traces one border of Iraqi Kurdistan, the territory that the Kurds have been fighting for decades to establish as an independent state. With as many as thirty million people spread across the Middle East, the Kurds claim to be the world’s largest ethnic group without a country. Iraqi Kurdistan, which contains about a quarter of that population, is a landlocked region surrounded almost entirely by neighbors—Turkey, Iran, and the government in Baghdad—that oppose its bid for statehood.
The incursion of ISIS presents the Kurds with both opportunity and risk. In June, the ISIS army swept out of the Syrian desert and into Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. As the Islamist forces took control, Iraqi Army soldiers fled, setting off a military collapse through the region. The Kurds, taking advantage of the chaos, seized huge tracts of territory that had been claimed by both Kurdistan and the government in Baghdad. With the newly acquired land, the political climate for independence seemed promising. The region was also finding new economic strength; vast reserves of oil have been discovered there in the past decade. In July, President Barzani asked the Kurdish parliament to begin preparations for a vote on self-rule. “The time has come to decide our fate, and we should not wait for other people to decide it for us,” Barzani said.
Since 2003, when the U.S. destroyed the Iraqi state and began spending billions of dollars trying to build a new one, the Kurds have been their most steadfast ally. When American forces departed, in 2011, not a single U.S. soldier had lost his life in Kurdish territory. As the rest of Iraq imploded, only the Kurdish region realized the dream that President George W. Bush had set forth when he ordered the attack: it is pro-Western, largely democratic, largely secular, and economically prosperous. President Obama recently told the Times that the Kurdish government is “functional the way we would like to see.”
Still, the Administration, bound to a policy it calls One Iraq, is quietly working to thwart the Kurds’ aspirations. American officials are warning companies that buying Kurdish oil may have dire legal consequences, and the warnings have been effective: the Kurdish regional government is nearly bankrupt. And yet, as the peshmerga work to force ISIS out of Kurdish territory, they have been supported by American jets and drones, and by American Special Forces on the ground. In August, President Obama ordered covert shipments of arms to the Kurds. By the end of the month, Kurdish forces had taken back much of the territory that they had lost to ISIS, and were preparing operations to reclaim the rest.
Obama has spoken carefully in public, but it is plain that the Administration wants the Kurds to do two potentially incompatible things. The first is to serve as a crucial ally in the campaign to destroy ISIS, with all the military funding and equipment that such a role entails. The second is to resist seceding from the Iraqi state. Around Washington, the understanding is clear: if the long-sought country of Kurdistan becomes real, America’s twelve-year project of nation building in Iraq will be sundered. Kurdish leaders acknowledge that the emergence of ISIS and the implosion of Syria are changing the region in unpredictable ways. But the Kurds’ history with the state of Iraq is one of persistent enmity and bloodshed, and they see little benefit in joining up with their old antagonists. “Iraq exists only in the minds of people in the White House,” Masrour Barzani, the Kurdish intelligence chief and Masoud’s son, told me. “We need our own laws, our own rules, our own country, and we are going to get them.”
Peshmerga forces near the city of Kirkuk, on the front between Kurdish and ISIS fighters. July 13, 2014.
CreditPHOTOGRAPHS BY MOISES SAMAN / MAGNUM
On March 16, 1988, Nosreen Abdul Qadeer, a sixteen-year-old newlywed in the Kurdish town of Halabja, was helping her mother prepare lunch for guests when she heard a series of explosions. This was unremarkable: the government of Saddam Hussein, then at war with Iran, had lumped the Kurds in with its foreign enemies. But the planes that day were flying unusually low, barely above the treetops. “I could see the pilots inside, taking photos of the city,” she said. The family rushed to the basement to wait out the bombardment.
A few minutes later, Qadeer noticed that her family members’ eyes were turning red. Then an eerie smell seeped under the doorway and down the stairs. One moment it reminded Qadeer of apples, the next of rotten eggs. When the shelling stopped, she and her family went outside. “Children were vomiting in the streets,” Qadeer said. “People’s noses were running with blood. Goats and chickens were on the ground choking to death.”
As people around her collapsed, Qadeer began to run, and found herself with a group of people she didn’t know. As they hustled toward the edge of town, they turned into the wind, discovering that it was easier to breathe that way. Qadeer urged strangers to keep moving, even as they passed the dead. She found many of the stragglers laughing deliriously as they expired. One was a boy, seated on the ground, who refused to budge. “Let me do my homework!” he said. “Let me do my homework!” That night, as the group prepared to sleep in an abandoned building, Qadeer began to lose her eyesight, and her memory started to fade. Her husband, Baktiar, found her, and placed tea leaves over her eyes to ease the burning. The next day, the group, with nearly everyone blind, began to move again, roping themselves together so that no one would be lost. A few days later, Qadeer awoke in an Iranian hospital, lashed to a bed. She was blind, burned, and bleeding from her vagina. But, she said, “I was not dead after all.” Twenty days later, her vision began to return. It was only then that she and the others realized that they had been attacked with chemical weapons.
I met Qadeer, who is now forty-two, at a museum in Halabja dedicated to the victims of the attack, which Saddam’s government carried out with sarin and mustard gas. As many as five thousand people died in the assault, including seventeen of Qadeer’s relatives, making it one of the most vicious acts of Saddam’s reign. An audiotape recovered after the fall of his regime recorded the raspy voice of Ali Hassan Al Majid, the dictator’s cousin and the orchestrator of the attack. “I will kill them all!” Majid says. “Fuck the international community! I will fuck the father of the international community!”
People from Halabja still suffer from respiratory illnesses caused by the chemical weapons: a resident of the town dies every four months from the residual effects. “I don’t have a normal life,” Qadeer told me. “If I go without my medicine, it is like the first day for me.” Like many women who survived the attack, Qadeer struggled to bear children; one was born with a hole in his heart and died a few weeks later. It was not until 2000, twelve years after the attack, that Qadeer was able to conceive successfully; she now has three healthy children. “All I ask for is a bright life for my children,” she said. “The person inside me died long ago.”
In the years after the attack, some of her rare moments of satisfaction came from the demise of Saddam Hussein. After his arrest, in December of 2003, Qadeer watched his trial every day on television; if she missed it, she would stay up until 2 A.M. to watch the second broadcast. Part of her wishes that he were still around: “I think the best revenge would have been for him to see what we have accomplished here in Kurdistan.”
Decades of mass trauma, mostly inflicted by the government in Baghdad, have generated a momentum toward statehood that seems nearly unstoppable. For Masoud Barzani, a lifetime of massacres and betrayals has relieved him of the obligation to help save Iraq for someone else’s benefit. “We tried our best to make a new Iraq, based on a new set of principles,” he said. “We spared no effort to help make this new Iraq work. But unfortunately it has failed. So our question to our doubters is just that: How much longer should we wait, and how much longer should we deny our destiny for some unknown future?”
Iraq was created in 1920, in the postwar settlement that established the modern Middle East. From the start, it was an unstable amalgam of three former provinces of the Ottoman Empire: a predominantly Shiite one in the south, a Sunni-dominated one in the center, and a largely Kurdish one in the north. Though many national groups in Europe and the Middle East gained statehood, the Kurds were split among the new states of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey and the ancient one of Iran.
Barzani was born in 1946 in the closest thing to an independent state that the Kurds have ever known: the Mahabad Republic, an autonomous region in northern Iran. Mahabad was supported by the Soviet Union, which was occupying large swaths of Iran. When the Red Army withdrew, under Western pressure, the republic collapsed. At the time, Mustafa Barzani, Masoud’s father, was the leader of the Kurds. He was forced to flee, leaving behind his wife and infant son, and they were not reunited for twelve years. Mustafa Barzani is still revered across Kurdistan, his portrait adorning walls in homes and teahouses. To Masoud, he was a remote figure, a man whom everyone but him seemed to know. “Masoud grew up away from his father, not knowing him, and yet his father was the most famous man among all the Kurds,” Shafiq Qazzaz, a friend of both men, said.
In the mid-nineteen-seventies, with the backing of the Shah of Iran, Israel, and the Central Intelligence Agency, Kurdish rebels secured a large self-governing area in northern Iraq. Mustafa Barzani, charismatic but unsophisticated, saw the Americans’ interest as a guarantee of victory. “My father never trusted the Shah, but he had total faith in America,” Masoud told me. Then, in 1975, the Shah made a separate peace with Saddam and cut off support to the Kurds. Mahmoud Othman, one of Mustafa’s closest advisers, recalled that the Shah announced his decision in a meeting, so dispassionately that he never raised his voice: “He said he’d made a deal and that, unfortunately, a third party had lost—and that was us, the Kurds.” When the Shah withdrew his aid, the C.I.A. and the Israelis quickly followed. The Iraqi Army surged back in, and more than a hundred thousand Kurds fled the region. A few months later, Mustafa received a diagnosis of advanced lung cancer. He spent his last years in the United States. Before he died, he wrote to President Jimmy Carter: “I could have prevented this calamity which befell my people, had I not fully believed in the promise of America.” The moment still resonates; Henry Kissinger’s name is known, and reviled, by nearly every Kurd. “It took Masoud a long time to regain his trust in the United States,” Qazzaz said. “He felt his father had died from the betrayal.”
The history of the Kurds’ relationship with the United States is a series of swings between rescue and abandonment, and, as a consequence, between gratitude and distrust. In early 1987, when Peter Galbraith was a young staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he and a group of colleagues went on an official visit to Iraq. The itinerary, Galbraith recalled recently, took him to Iraq’s Kurdish region. As he and a government escort drove through the countryside of northern Iraq, Galbraith was struck by a string of empty villages, some of which were being bulldozed. Other villages, designated on American military maps, had vanished. Galbraith wasn’t allowed to get out of the car to investigate. “It was shocking,” Galbraith said. “Nobody knew what was happening.”
The following year, back in the U.S., Galbraith began to read reports of Kurdish civilians who claimed to have been attacked by poison gas. The Iran-Iraq War had recently ended, so there could be no dispute about who was using the weapon. “I said, ‘Saddam intends to commit genocide against the Kurds,’ ” Galbraith told me. When he and his colleagues visited the Turkish-Iraqi border, he quickly confirmed that some Kurdish refugees were suffering from the effects of poison gas.
What Galbraith had witnessed was the Anfal campaign, named for a chapter in the Koran that refers to the victory of a handful of the Prophet’s followers over an army of unbelievers. Saddam launched Anfal in 1987, beginning the destruction of some four thousand Kurdish villages as he tried to depopulate the countryside. Galbraith embarked on a lonely effort to publicize the Kurds’ plight; his first attempt, working with Senator Claiborne Pell to impose sanctions on Saddam’s regime, failed in Congress.
In August, 1990, the West’s view of Saddam changed abruptly, when he ordered his Army into Kuwait. Saddam’s invasion prompted an enormous international response, including an American-led military intervention. The ground campaign to throw the Iraqi Army out of Kuwait was accomplished with stunning speed—it took exactly a hundred hours—and it was followed almost immediately by an uprising among Iraq’s Kurds and its long-suppressed Shiite majority. The uprising was encouraged by American officials, who, in radio broadcasts, urged Iraqis to deal with Saddam on their own.
At negotiations for the Iraqi Army’s surrender, the American commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf, granted Iraq’s request that its pilots be allowed to fly helicopters around the country—not realizing, he said later, that they might be deployed to suppress an uprising. With the helicopters leading the way, Saddam’s Army mounted a ferocious counterattack against rebels inside the country, killing more than a hundred and fifty thousand Shiites. Almost two million Kurds, fearing gas attacks, fled for Iran and Turkey. Tens of thousands died from privation or military attacks along the way.
As a catastrophe unfolded in northern Iraq, President George H. W. Bush refused to intervene, calling Saddam’s crackdown an internal Iraqi affair. Masoud Barzani, who had taken over leadership of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (K.D.P.) after his father’s death, found himself with fewer than a hundred fighters. “We vowed to fight to the last bullet,” he said. In the Kore Valley, Barzani’s men stopped a column of Iraqi tanks; their rusting hulks remain, an essential part of the Kurdish national legend. But Saddam’s offensive continued. President Bush, confronted with a humanitarian disaster, ordered American planes to enforce “no-fly zones” in southern and northern Iraq, threatening to shoot down any Iraqi aircraft that ventured inside.
The no-fly zones proved decisive, and Saddam invited Barzani to Baghdad to arrange an accord. Barzani recalled confronting him, alone, in his office: “For five minutes, I stood there, unable to breathe, and I thought I was having a heart attack. Finally, I told Saddam, ‘I have swum through a sea of blood.’ ” Saddam, he said, was cordial, even deferential; when tea was served, he reached across the table and switched cups, assuring Barzani that his tea was not poisoned. The two men struck a deal to stop the fighting. Barzani told me that he is haunted by the memory of meeting Saddam. “He has a double personality, two paradoxical people in the same body,” he said. “He was so polite with me, in all my meetings with him. But his actions? No devil can make those actions.”
The deal with Saddam fell apart. But, under pressure from American jets and from the peshmerga, Saddam withdrew his forces from most of the Kurdish region in October, 1991. The refugees began to come home. Few people in the West realized it at the time, but the no-fly zone in northern Iraq marked the beginning of the Kurds’ road to self-rule; for twelve years, it gave them space to develop their institutions. “The no-fly zone was one of the most efficient and humane uses of power in the history of American foreign policy,” Galbraith said. The Kurds saw an opportunity early. In 1991, with the Iraqi Army gone, Barzani announced elections for a new Kurdish parliament, a prototype for the state he intended to build. Something else had changed, too: for the first time in his adult life, he stopped carrying a gun. In a speech he made at the time, he said, “We need to show the whole world that Kurds are not just brave and good at fighting but also good at respecting the law.”
When I met Barzani in his office in the town of Salahuddin, on a sweltering afternoon, he cut an almost elfin figure. At sixty-eight, he is short and squat, with a round, animated face and an easy smile that suggested the egalitarian openness of a guerrilla commander. He wore a red-and-white Kurdish turban, called a jamadani, and the traditional peshmerga outfit of baggy pants and a tunic, held tight by a corset designed to support the back on mountain treks. Barzani told me that he goes for long hikes in the Kurdish countryside, sometimes spending the night in the open air. He figures that he has spent at least half his life in the mountains, as a refugee and as a guerrilla leader. “It was a very beautiful life for me, and I don’t regret a single day,” he said. “It was very risky, very hard, but it was nice.”
Barzani has fought for the Kurdish cause for fifty years. During that time, the Kurds endured successive waves of calamity, mostly at the hands of Saddam Hussein: the genocidal onslaught of Anfal, which killed as many as a hundred and eighty thousand people; chemical-weapons attacks; and an unrelenting campaign of torture and imprisonment that touched nearly every Kurdish family. Barzani himself lost thirty-seven family members.
As the President of the Kurdish region, Barzani seems more a plainspoken populist than a deep thinker on policy. And yet his admirers say that his finest moment came in August, 2005, during negotiations over Iraq’s new constitution, when he helped to lay the groundwork for an incipient Kurdish state. The day after the constitution was completed, I talked with Barzani, who was dressed, uncharacteristically, in a Western-style suit and tie. He looked satisfied but exhausted. “Politics is much more difficult than war,” he told me. “In politics, there are so many more fronts.”
Throughout the war in Iraq, the Kurds were the Americans’ most loyal partners, offering up the peshmerga to form the nucleus of the new Iraqi Army and one of their own leaders, Jalal Talabani, to be the President of Iraq. Kurdish politicians won seats in the new parliament. But, as the U.S. tried to build a unified and democratic Iraq, the Kurds developed a parallel state, fostering separate democratic institutions, preserving their army, and preparing for the Americans’ eventual departure. If it wasn’t exactly a double game, it allowed the Kurds to be ready for the day when the Iraqi state disintegrated.
Barzani accomplished this by a kind of legal sleight of hand: early on, he insisted on provisions that would allow any three Iraqi provinces to vote down a nationwide constitutional referendum. There are three Kurdish-majority provinces, and no one doubted that Barzani could muster the necessary votes to doom the entire constitution. “Everyone was afraid that the Kurds would just walk away,” Zalmay Khalilzad, the American Ambassador to Iraq at the time, who presided over the talks, said. “This gave Barzani enormous leverage.”
For weeks, as the constitution was debated, Barzani argued each night into the early-morning hours. When the talks were over, and the constitution was ratified, the Kurdish region was still nominally part of Iraq but had most of the attributes of an independent state. The Kurds retained control of their armed forces, which the Americans had sought to disband, and acquired wide latitude to govern themselves. The most explosive subject during the talks had been the distribution of Iraq’s oil wealth, which was seen as either the glue that would hold the ravaged country together or, for the Kurds, the asset that would enable them to break away. Crucially, Barzani secured the right to oversee new discoveries of oil and gas. He fought to sharply limit the powers of the federal government, and secured a provision by which, when the laws of local and central governments came into conflict, the local law would prevail. “Masoud was tough,” Galbraith, who advised the Kurdish leaders during the talks, said. “He had mastered the issues. And he achieved almost everything he set out to achieve.” It was an adroit political balancing act: Barzani could claim that he had kept the Kurds part of a united Iraq, pleasing Baghdad and his patrons in the United States, while also laying the foundation of a separate state. “What’s been happening in Iraq, particularly with their oil, it’s not some historical accident,” Galbraith said. “All of this was planned, and it was all planned by the Kurds.”
At about nine-thirty on the night of June 9th, Kurdish officials began receiving reports that ISIS militants were pouring into the northern city of Mosul. The intelligence indicated that they were planning to free some fourteen hundred captured Sunnis from Badush Prison, inside the city. The Kurds, whose border runs through Mosul, were alarmed but not surprised. For months, ISIS fighters had been quietly infiltrating the city’s Arab neighborhoods and setting up a shadow government. Kurdish officials estimated that ISIS leaders had been collecting fifteen million dollars a month in taxes from local businesses.
Barzani had been concerned about ISIS for some time. The previous fall, he called Nuri al-Maliki, then the Iraqi Prime Minister, to warn him and to offer help. “His answer to me was ‘You just take care of Kurdistan, and the rest is under control,’ ” Barzani said. According to Fuad Hussein, Barzani’s chief of staff, Maliki was increasingly isolated, his hold on reality slipping. In meetings with Kurdish officials, Maliki boasted that the Iraqi Army was performing brilliantly against ISIS and other Sunni insurgents, when, according to Kurdish intelligence, it was falling apart. “Maliki created a fantasy world for himself and the people around him,” Hussein said. Still, as ISIS fighters spread across Mosul, it seemed that Maliki could not ignore what was happening. In the preceding days, Hussein had called Tariq Najm, Maliki’s closest confidant, to offer the Kurds’ assistance in confronting ISIS. Najm refused—worried, apparently, that if the peshmerga went into Mosul they would never leave.
At two o’clock on the morning of June 10th, Najm called back, pleading for help. By then, the Iraqi Army and the police force in Mosul—some fifty-two thousand men in all—had disintegrated. The commander of Iraqi forces in the region and the deputy chief of staff of the Army had fled, as had the leaders of six divisions. Iraqi soldiers were throwing their guns away and stripping off their uniforms—in some cases, rushing through the streets in their underwear. However limited ISIS’s plans may have been initially, they appeared to be expanding; Mosul had fallen. “It’s too late, my friend,” Hussein told Najm. “Your Army has disappeared.”
Later that morning, ISIS fighters turned south, toward the city of Kirkuk. Since Iraq’s creation, Kirkuk, a hundred and sixty miles north of Baghdad, has been an object of dispute between the Arab-dominated governments in Baghdad and the Kurdish population. Over the years, Kirkuk had been subjected to campaigns of ethnic cleansing, its Kurdish majority reduced by waves of expulsions and Arab migration from the south. To many Kurds, Kirkuk is sacred ground, a vital component of an independent state.
The city was part of the “disputed territories,” a strip of land along the border between the Iraqis and the Kurds, which was claimed by both governments. Kirkuk and the rest of the contested region contained as many as a million Kurds, as well as oil reserves thought to amount to at least ten billion barrels. For years, many Iraqis and Westerners regarded Kirkuk as the likeliest starting point for another war, and its unresolved status stood as the biggest obstacle to Kurdish independence. Since 2003, the city had been jointly overseen by the peshmerga and the Iraqi Army—and, until 2011, by American soldiers.
As ISIS closed in, the Iraqi Army around Kirkuk began to collapse. That afternoon, General Sherko Fatih, the local Kurdish commander, met with his Iraqi counterpart, General Mohammed al-Dulaimi, the head of the Iraqi 12th Division. “Dulaimi was broken,” Fatih told me. “He had lost the will to fight.” One Iraqi town after another was falling to ISIS; militants captured Abbassi, outside Kirkuk, with just a taxi and a pickup truck. Fatih handed Dulaimi civilian clothes, put him on a plane to Baghdad, and called the senior Kurdish leadership. If the Kurds did not act soon, he told them, Kirkuk would be the next city to fall.
Barzani was in a Paris hospital, accompanying his wife, who was having knee surgery. With the Iraqi Army in retreat, he was faced with an unprecedented opportunity to seize Kirkuk entirely for the Kurds. “Six Iraqi divisions melted like the snow,” Barzani told me. “I saw it in an opportunistic way.” Barzani said that he was unsentimental about the possibility that grabbing Kirkuk might contribute to the final dissolution of the Iraqi state. And, ultimately, Maliki all but gave him permission. On the evening of the tenth, Hussein told me, he received a phone call from Hamid al-Musawi, Maliki’s personal secretary, conveying a request to secure the disputed areas before ISIS could: “It would be a good thing if you moved in.”
And so Barzani gave the order: “Fill the vacuum.” The first of thirty thousand peshmerga fighters moved forward, occupying posts that the Iraqi Army had abandoned. By midnight, the Kurds had taken possession of Kirkuk, and Barzani soon made it clear that they would never give it back. He told me, “Even now, when I reflect on what happened that night, it was like a dream.”
In seizing Kirkuk, Barzani raised the crucial issue: whether to secede from Iraq and form an independent Kurdish state. In my interview with Barzani, he indicated that he was inclined to go it alone. Barzani said, “We have learned that we need to rely on ourselves.”
South of Kirkuk, the village of Rashad straddles a canal named for Saddam Hussein, which divides Kurdish territory from the land held by ISIS. From a watchtower on the Kurdish side, sentinels look out at ISIS fighters, manning their stations, moving about in taxis and trucks. In early June, when they arrived, they took control of a brick factory, and raised a large black flag above its roof. On the watchtower, I stood with Tania Arab, a twenty-four-year-old peshmerga fighter, who seemed thrilled to be part of the force that had reclaimed the Kurds’ ancestral lands. He said, “Before I came here, my father told me, ‘If you abandon your post, you are not my son.’ ”
ISIS and the peshmerga face each other in outposts like this along the six-hundred-and-fifty-mile front. (The Kurds’ border with the Iraqi Army is only ten miles long, on a stretch near the Iranian border.) In the weeks since ISIS moved in, there have been periods of both fighting and calm. A few days before I arrived, an ISIS commander sent a message across the canal, carried by a local Turkoman businessman, asking General Fatih, his counterpart, if he was willing to talk. Fatih turned the messenger away. “I don’t trust them enough,” he said of the ISIS men. Even before the second wave of attacks—when ISIS captured Sinjar, Makhmour, and the Mosul Dam—Kurdish leaders said that they harbored few illusions about the group’s intentions. A few days after General Fatih rejected ISIS’s request for talks, a suicide bomber drove a car, laden with explosives, into a peshmerga checkpoint outside his headquarters, and a roadside bomb detonated nearby. Twenty-eight people died; when I arrived, police were still picking through twisted metal and broken glass.
The ISIS that swept into northwestern Iraq this June is remarkably different from its predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq. The earlier organization operated mostly in secret, and its leaders were uninterested in acquiring territory, believing that a fixed location creates unacceptable risks. ISIS is led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who holds a Ph.D. in Islamic studies from Baghdad University and spent time in an American military prison in Iraq. At forty-three, he is said to be a flamboyant figure, a self-styled successor to Osama bin Laden. Baghdadi’s goal is to re-create the era of the caliphate, when an Islamic regime ruled from Constantinople to Morocco and the Arabian Peninsula.
Al Qaeda in Iraq was run largely by foreigners; ISIS is run by a council of former Iraqi generals, according to Hisham Alhashimi, an adviser to the Iraqi government and an expert on ISIS. Many are members of Saddam Hussein’s secular Baath Party who converted to radical Islam in American prisons. Baghdadi has divided his conquered Iraqi lands into seven “vilayets,” the name given to provinces in the caliphate. Each vilayet has a governor, who answers directly to Baghdadi, but who is free to launch attacks as he sees fit. “No permission is needed,” Alhashimi said.
Alhashimi estimated that Baghdadi has about ten thousand fighters under his command in Iraq and twelve thousand in Syria, with tens of thousands of active supporters in both countries. In Iraq, the advance force, called the House of Islam, is dominated by foreigners, including several hundred Europeans, Australians, and Americans. Many of them are suicide bombers. Alhashimi says that the group is increasingly well funded; he estimated that it takes in ten million dollars a month from kidnapping, and more than a hundred and fifty million dollars a month from smuggling oil into Turkey and other neighboring countries, often selling it at the bargain price of about a dollar a gallon. As of early this year, ISIS had an estimated nine hundred and fifty million dollars in cash, Alhashimi said, an amount that has grown as the group has taken more territory and imposed taxes on local Iraqis.
One of the hallmarks of ISIS’s military strategy has been to launch several attacks simultaneously, distracting opponents from its real target. The group is fighting on many fronts in Iraq and Syria, Alhashimi said, and he believes that it may be planning a major attack somewhere else—in the Gulf or in Europe. “I don’t think it’s far away,” Alhashimi said.
Although President Obama initially described ISIS as a small, unskilled force, his Administration has recently been much more concerned about the threat it poses. A U.S. official told me, “ISIS has kicked the shit out of anyone that’s got in its way, from al-Nusra, to the Islamic Front, to, you know, whatever the Free Syrian Army ever was, to Sunni tribes in Iraq who’ve tried to stand up to it. It is the most dominant force on the field.” Its military commanders have relied on a combination of conventional and guerrilla tactics—along with terrorism—to achieve their ends. Most of ISIS’s attacks against the Iraqi Army and the Kurds have followed the same pattern, the official told me. ISIS opens with a sustained artillery bombardment, which can last for days, then sends in waves of suicide bombers. When the defenses start to crack, its fighters race in on trucks, guns firing. This was how ISIS conquered the Iraqi cities of Sinjar and Al Qaim, on the Euphrates. “Without airpower, I think our guys would have a hard time holding them off,” the official said. He said that ISIS was the result of a brutal process of “combat Darwinism,” by which only the strongest, most fanatical fighters survived the American onslaught in 2006 and 2007, when Al Qaeda in Iraq was nearly destroyed. “These are the guys we didn’t kill.”
The initial air strikes ordered by President Obama—more than a hundred and fifty—were intended solely to aid the Kurdish forces and the government in Baghdad, and to rescue the Yazidis, a religious minority that fled en masse to Mt. Sinjar when ISIS’s fighters threatened a large-scale massacre. The air strikes, the U.S. official said, were coördinated by teams of American Special Forces, which conducted thermal scans to locate ISIS fighters and then targeted them with bombs.
But the next wave of strikes, which Obama outlined in a nationally broadcast speech in early September, will go much deeper. “Unless you degrade [ISIS’s] war-fighting capacity—that means its command and control, its leadership, its armored vehicles, its ability to mass and maneuver and conduct war—there is no local force on the ground in this entire swath of territory that can stand up to it right now,” he said. Obama is assembling a coalition of states that are willing to contribute training and airpower. But, as ISIS fighters integrate themselves into local populations, the coalition needs fighters who will go from door to door. In Iraq, there are only two standing fighting forces: the peshmerga and the Iraqi Army.
As part of a nascent strategy for taking on ISIS, Obama has agreed to arm the peshmerga, who, despite their reputation, have been radically underequipped. Peshmerga commanders told me that, as they rolled into abandoned Iraqi Army bases, they were stunned by the weapons that the Americans had provided. “The Iraqi Army has the best equipment—M-16s, night-vision goggles, Humvees,” Fatih told me. Masrour Barzani, the Kurdish intelligence chief, said, “We never got any of that. We’ve got Kalashnikov rifles from the nineteen-seventies. The Americans never gave us anything, and they’ve blocked us from acquiring new weapons on our own.” Desperate for an advantage over ISIS, the Kurds have recently accepted weapons and military support from Iran.
For the moment, the White House’s decision to arm the Kurds will probably inspire them to greater coöperation with the Iraqi government. But even though Kurdish leaders say that they are keen to confront the ISIS fighters on their borders, they are less keen to go beyond them. The disputed territories seized by the peshmerga in June had large Kurdish populations. Kurdish leaders told me that they have no desire to take the fight into Arab-dominated lands, where ISIS has many supporters. It seems more likely that the new military equipment will strengthen the defense of the Kurdish region—and make independence more plausible.
Still, the Kurdish army is a more promising partner than its Iraqi counterpart. To the Kurds, the hollowness of the Iraqi Army was evident for years, even as the Americans poured billions of dollars into it. “It was never a real army,” Najmuddin Karim, the governor of Kirkuk, said. “It was a checkpoint army—they manned checkpoints. It was an employment opportunity. The Americans were always telling us how good they were, but we didn’t believe them.” I asked Fatih, the Kurdish general, if the Americans stationed in Iraq were aware of the deep-seated problems. “Of course they knew,” he said. “They were just pretending to believe.”
Barham Salih, a Kurd who is a former Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq, told me that even before the ISIS offensive the Iraqi Army was useful mainly as a piggy bank for its officers. At a meeting of senior generals earlier this year, Salih told me, the commanders noted that one of the élite armored divisions, meant to comprise more than ten thousand men, had dwindled to about five hundred. The division’s remaining officers were marking the men present and pocketing their wages. “This is a corrupt system,” Salih said. “You have no division, all the units are gone, and the commanders are stealing all the money.”
A week after the Iraqi Army collapsed, I sat with Mohammed Ghafar, a twenty-eight-year-old soldier from Kirkuk. Ghafar, a Shiite Arab, told me that he had joined the Army, ten years ago, with pride. “I needed a job, but the truth is that I joined to serve my country,” he said. He was assigned to the 12th Division, which oversaw his home town. Ghafar earned a good salary, got married and had two children, and looked forward to a career as a soldier. The Army never functioned as well as he had hoped, Ghafar said, but it grew much worse in 2011, when the American military departed. Ghafar liked the Americans. He respected their professionalism and the training they offered, and, most important, he felt that they helped to keep his superiors honest. “Everything changed after the Americans left,” Ghafar said. “The commanders steal everything. They sell it in the local market—clothes, boots, our equipment.” Ghafar said that he was forced to buy boots at the local bazaar. In his unit, the absentee rate soared. Even the rations went bad, he said. “We used to have the best food,” Ghafar said. “After the Americans left, all we got was eggplant. Eggplant at every meal! Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”
Ghafar was based in Dibis, a largely Sunni area near Kirkuk, when ISIS approached. By then, he and his men had heard what happened in Mosul: senior commanders had fled, and the soldiers had quickly followed. “The betrayal started in Mosul,” he said. “When your commanders quit, why should the soldiers fight?” It was clear, he said, that the locals sympathized with ISIS, and that his own Army was overmatched. He had no rifle; all his equipment had been stolen or was in disrepair. “ISIS was better equipped than we were!” he said. His comrades started to abandon their posts, and finally, he said, a Kurdish officer in his division told him to go home. “And so I went home,” he said, shrugging. “It was an order.”
Ghafar said that he hasn’t been paid since April. He spoke wistfully of his former career, and of his homeland. “I miss the Americans,” he said. “Iraq? Maybe Iraq is finished.”
In 2003, when the Americans came to Kurdistan, Sarmad Fadil, a young college dropout in Erbil, went into business. At the time, the Internet was barely available, and he felt sure that people would soon demand it. Fadil spoke only basic English, and had very little money, but he was able to set up a private Internet company, called Seven Net Layers. As the American Army brought stability and as foreign money poured in, the Kurdish economy began to boom. This past May, Fadil sold Seven Net Layers for some ten million dollars.
Fadil likes to go to business conferences abroad, where he buttonholes Western executives. “I’ve met a lot of C.E.O.s, and I’ve asked them a lot of questions,” he said. Earlier this year, he and two other businessmen invested sixty million dollars to open an Erbil branch of Aksa Yapi, a Turkish construction firm—part of a wave of people and money flowing from Turkey into the Kurdish region.
Historically, Turkish governments regarded Iraqi Kurds with deep suspicion, often intervening militarily to stop what they viewed as support for the bloody Kurdish insurgency in Turkey. The boom in the Kurdish economy—and the subsequent success of Turkish companies there—has transformed relations between the two former enemies. Today, according to Turkish officials, there are some twelve hundred Turkish companies operating in Kurdistan, bringing in as many as a hundred thousand Turkish workers. Fadil seems to have caught the wave just as it was building. With eighty-five employees and three hundred suppliers, Aksa Yapi oversees construction projects worth a hundred and ten million dollars. Fadil says that his company relies almost entirely on demand generated from within Kurdistan or outside the country, not in the rest of Iraq. “It is a time of great opportunity,” he said.
Like many of the newly wealthy here, Fadil is unabashed about his success: he drives a Range Rover with the plastic wrapping still on the seats, and frequents Qi 21, a Japanese restaurant where fresh fish is flown in every day. He keeps a library of thousands of movies from the West; his favorite is “The Great Gatsby.” (“It was so inspiring,” he said.) In his early thirties, he has no immediate plans to marry, which is remarkable for this part of the world. “I like to enjoy my life,” he said.
Erbil appears to have almost nothing in common with Baghdad, two hundred and fifty miles to the south. A low-slung Middle Eastern city, Baghdad looks little changed since the height of the American war. It is dirty, cacophonous, and violent—despite the wealth that accrues from a government monopoly on oil revenues, which last year approached ninety billion dollars. For the past eight years, its political system, under Prime Minister Maliki, has alternated between stalemate and outright sectarian aggression.
In Erbil, construction cranes stretch across the horizon. There’s a Jaguar dealership; luxury hotels, like the Kempinski and the Divan; and dance clubs, like Aura, which stay open till the early morning. Fadil’s main project these days is 4 Towers, a complex of four eighteen-story buildings, divided into apartments the size of suburban houses. Each apartment sells for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars; although construction is not yet complete, three-quarters of them are sold.
Fadil took me to see 4 Towers, which overlooks Ankawa, a Christian district. As we toured the grounds, I noticed the Um Alnoor Orthodox Church, across the street. It was built in 2010 to accommodate the growing number of Christians fleeing Arab parts of Iraq. Today, its basement is filled with refugees from Mosul, where ISIS fighters are menacing the Christian population. As with almost everything in Erbil, the strife of the Arab lands feels distant, until it suddenly intrudes.
To businessmen like Fadil, Baghdad is a maze of pointless demands and delays. He complained that the country’s antiquated finance laws, overseen by the central government, make it extremely difficult for Kurdish businesses to borrow money, especially for big projects like 4 Towers. Other laws, he said, restrict entire categories of imports; there is a set of laws for olive trees, and another for finished concrete. “It’s like we are living in another time,” he said.
The recent surge by ISIS and the disputes with Baghdad have taken a toll on the Kurdish economy. Many of Fadil’s contracts with the Kurdish government are frozen for lack of money; Aksa Yapi is owed more than a million dollars. But Fadil told me that such troubles will not dissuade the Kurds from pursuing the dream of a separate state: “My grandfather fought. My father fought. If you ask me, I will fight.”
Fadil keeps a small humidor in his office, stocked with Cuban cigars. As the talk turned to Kurdish independence, he offered me one. “Every time I travel abroad, and I am asked to produce my Iraqi passport, I feel shame,” Fadil said. “We are not Arab, we are not Turkish, we are not Persian. We are Kurds. We are a nation. We have our right.”
For the Kurds, the key to independence lies in exploiting their oil reserves, a battle that is just beginning. In July, a lawyer for the Iraqi government asked a federal judge in Houston to seize an oil tanker in the Gulf of Mexico. The ship, the United Kalavryta, was carrying a hundred million dollars’ worth of Kurdish oil to a refinery in Texas. The Iraqi government claimed that the Kurds had exported the oil illegally. The judge initially agreed, ordering the oil to be seized if it entered American territorial waters. In August, after hearing arguments from each side, the court ruled in favor of the Kurds, clearing the way for the oil to come ashore—but the legal dispute continues, and the United Kalavryta remains anchored in the Gulf of Mexico.
Under the Iraqi constitution, the Kurdish region is supposed to receive seventeen per cent of Iraq’s oil revenues, an amount roughly equal to its share of the population. According to Kurdish officials, Baghdad has short-changed the Kurds every year, depriving them of some twenty-five billion dollars. Until recently, the Kurds have had little leverage over Baghdad, since most Iraqi oil came from fields in southern Iraq, under the control of the central government.
Since 2003, though, Kurdish leaders have opened their oil fields to Western companies, to explore, drill, and produce. It turns out that the Kurds are sitting on as many as fifty-five billion barrels of oil—a quarter of Iraq’s total reserves. Twenty-nine companies, among them ExxonMobil and Chevron, are working in Kurdistan; the region currently maintains a relatively modest production of about two hundred thousand barrels a day.
For years, Iraqi officials accused the Kurds of preparing to unilaterally export oil, which they regarded as a prelude to independence. The dispute came to a head last October, when the Kurds, without Baghdad’s approval, opened a pipeline to pump Kurdish oil through Turkey and on to the Mediterranean. In February, Maliki stopped all payments to the Kurdish regional government, depriving it of the overwhelming majority of its revenue. The Kurds countered by signing a fifty-year agreement to sell oil to Turkey. Earlier this year, I spoke to the Iraqi oil minister, Hussein Shahristani, who insisted that the entire Kurdish oil project was illegal. “These companies have no right to work on Iraqi soil, in violation of Iraqi laws, without the agreement of the Iraqi government,” he said.
At the heart of the dispute is the ambiguous language of the Iraqi constitution. Its provisions divide oil into two classes: oil extracted before 2005, the year that the constitution was ratified, and after. The sale of pre-2005 oil—like that found in the fields in southern Iraq—is to be administered primarily by the central government. The language is vague about newly discovered oil, reflecting the sharp disagreements on the issue at the time. Although it calls on the federal and regional governments to “together formulate the necessary strategic policies” to develop the country’s oil and gas, it suggests that local governments, like the Kurds’, have final authority over extracting oil in their areas.
From the beginning, Kurdish leaders have said that the constitution gives them the right to unilaterally explore and drill for oil. That interpretation, which they have been acting on for a decade, has become a fait accompli: the Kurds now have much of the wherewithal to run an independent oil industry.
Still, Kurdish leaders did not foresee just how hard self-sufficiency would be. With no money coming from Baghdad, and little coming from the sale of oil, the government has been largely unable to pay its fifty thousand civil servants for most of this year. The local economy, which imports nearly all its consumer products, has come to a halt. At times, the lines outside gas stations have stretched for miles. The economic slowdown has reminded every Kurdish official—and every citizen—how vulnerable their landlocked state is. “We believe in our right of self-determination,” Fuad Hussein, Barzani’s chief of staff, said. “But, at the same time, politics is about reality. It’s not only about what you desire—it’s about what you can get.”
Ashti Hawrami, the minister of natural resources for the Kurdish region, told me that he hoped to increase Kurdistan’s output of oil to a half million barrels a day by the end of the year, and to a million barrels a day by the end of 2015. That, he said, would help the Kurds ride out the difficulties imposed by the central government. But his optimism has not blunted his distrust of his counterparts in Baghdad. “Why are they fighting with me?” he said. “Cutting my budget, and keeping the oil in the ground, and damaging the oil fields? Just to punish me.”
The government in Baghdad has threatened to sue anyone who buys Kurdish oil, and it has taken at least one case to the International Court of Arbitration, in Paris. More important, officials in Turkey, through which the vital pipeline flows, have indicated that they will require the Kurdish government to distribute oil revenues—which are held in a Turkish state bank—according to the provisions of the Iraqi constitution. That means that the Kurds can expect to receive only seventeen per cent of the money from the sale of their own oil.
The Obama Administration says that it is neutral in its policy toward Kurdish oil. But analysts say that the U.S. government warnings about buying Kurdish oil have chilled the market. “When the United States says don’t buy Kurdish oil, no one’s going to buy it,” Nat Kern, the editor of a newsletter on the international oil industry, told me. The Kurds say that they have dispatched sixteen tankers filled with oil from the Turkish port of Ceyhan. According to industry experts, they have delivered only two directly to buyers—one in Croatia, and one in Israel, which is a longtime supporter of the Kurds. The others have taken a circuitous route. Some have handed off their cargo to other ships in mid-passage; the rest are still at sea, sailing with their beacons turned off, so that they are difficult to track.
U.S. officials say that the Kurds would be better off staying in Iraq and making an agreement with Baghdad to get their share of the nation’s oil revenues: no amount of oil that the Kurds can ship in the next few years could equal the revenue lost by leaving Iraq. “Even if they sold as much oil as possible and everything worked like gangbusters, there would still be this huge gap,” the U.S. official told me. “Ashti will tell you something else, and he’s full of it.” But, the officials say, an oil agreement is impossible as long as the Kurds insist on pursuing independence.
Kurdish officials are not convinced; the parliament is expected to choose a date for a referendum this year or next year. But, even if the Kurds are able to sell their own oil, it will have to flow through Turkey, their only friendly neighbor with a pipeline into the Kurdish region. That leaves the Kurds vulnerable. “I don’t want to trade one kind of dependence with another,” Salih, the former Deputy Prime Minister, told me. He favors a more deliberate pace toward independence. “If we move too fast, we will become a slave to Turkey.”
Under the threat of ISIS, the Kurds appear remarkably united in their eagerness for an independent state. Still, beneath the surface is a deep current of frustration with Masoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, the leader of the other major party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (P.U.K.). The feeling runs deepest among the young, who see the region’s new oil wealth flowing to small cliques gathered around the two men.
In July, I met Shunas Hussein, a senior at the American University of Iraq, in Suleimaniya. The university, established in 2007, is modelled on élite English-language institutions in Beirut and Cairo. When Hussein’s mother was six months pregnant with him, his father, a peshmerga leader, was killed by Saddam’s forces; as the son of a martyr, he has his tuition fees paid by the Kurdish government. An international-studies major, he hopes to become a politician in a new Kurdish state.
Like almost everyone else in Kurdistan, Hussein sees independence as inevitable. But it took him only a few minutes to launch into a tirade against Barzani and Talabani. “Those two families have conquered Kurdistan—they own everything,” he said. “If you look at almost any company, you will see that it is owned either by the two families or by people very close to them. Every single person in Kurdistan knows this.” Everyone seems to have a favorite complaint: the dominant cellular-phone network, Korek, is owned by Masoud Barzani’s nephew. The Faruk Group, a sprawling holding company centered in Suleimaniya, maintains close ties to the Talabani family. (Talabani suffered a debilitating stroke in 2012, but his family’s power is undiminished.) Another Barzani nephew, Nechirvan, is not only the Prime Minister of Kurdistan but also the owner of a palatial mansion that occupies several city blocks in Erbil. “I mean, there are thousands of people in this country, they can’t even afford to rent a house,” Hussein said. Like many other people in the region, he believes that both the K.D.P. and the P.U.K. are permeated by corruption.
A wealthy Kurdish businessman with ties to both parties explained that they began as guerrilla armies and changed gradually into giant family businesses, gathering power and wealth and shunning anyone who tried to change the system. In private conversation, tales of bribery and retribution abound. “All these buildings you see around you,” the businessman told me, gesturing to the high-rises that punctuate Erbil’s skyline. “They are owned by a hundred people. Those hundred people work for ten people. The ten people work for three.”
In 2011, Shunas Hussein took part in unprecedented popular demonstrations against the Kurdish government, which sprang up in Suleimaniya’s bazaar as the Arab Spring was unfolding across the Middle East. Hussein came out every day for sixty-four days, demonstrating for a more open system. At their peak, the demonstrations attracted thousands, with their leaders presenting the government with a list of fourteen demands, including an end to corruption. After two months, security forces surrounded the demonstrators and opened fire, killing at least two of them and wounding forty-seven. The protesters’ demands were unmet, leaving Hussein and others angry but undeterred. “It’s not just the two political parties anymore,” he said. “There is a third person in this marriage, and it’s the streets.”
Like many young people, Hussein supports the Change Party, which began as a dissident faction of the P.U.K. and has become the second-largest party and a member of the coalition government. For all the recent advances, Hussein is worried that, with ISIS on the doorstep and independence in the air, there will be no appetite for reform. “Most people will be patient, even if they are not getting their salaries,” Hussein said. “But not forever. We will not wait forever.”
With so much oil still to be tapped, many Kurds fear that the country will devolve into a kleptocracy. Hiwa Osman, who owns a communications firm in Erbil, told me, “The choice is between Norway and Nigeria”—that is, between a country where the oil wealth is managed conscientiously and one where it is largely stolen or misappropriated. Osman spent five years in Baghdad during the American war, overseeing a program to train local journalists to cover the government responsibly and aggressively; many of those journalists were murdered while pursuing stories. The problem in the Kurdish region, he told me, is not just that the government is corrupt but that its operations are opaque, and that the press is mostly complacent. “The big problem with our wealth is, we don’t know what’s happening,” Osman said. “Our oil business is very secretive. No one knows where the money is going.”
Osman fears that there will always be some outside threat—if not ISIS, then a pipeline closure by Turkey, say, or a looming invasion from Baghdad—that allows Kurdish leaders to stifle public debate. Already, he says, the press is silent about many of the abuses carried out by public officials. Iraqi libel laws allow for criminal penalties against journalists, which, Osman says, act as an effective censor. “There isn’t an independent journalist in Kurdistan who hasn’t been charged with libel,” he said. “I’m just not sure how democratic Kurdistan will be.”
Indeed, as we spoke, Osman began to modify his prediction. A future as a state like either Norway or Nigeria was less likely than one as a Persian Gulf petro-state, one that made its people rich but which gave them little role in governing themselves. “In the Gulf, you have a rich and unaccountable minority that is controlling the wealth of the nation,” he said. “Everyone lives comfortably, as long as they keep their mouths shut.”
In early September, the Iraqi parliament voted to approve a new unity government, led by the veteran Shiite politician Haider al-Abadi. The coalition was intended to be more inclusive, with representatives from all of the country’s main warring factions. Barzani contributed five ministers to Abadi’s cabinet, including a Deputy Prime Minister. But, a K.D.P. leader said, “the Kurdish decision to participate in the Iraqi government was a halfhearted one.” Almost no one was convinced that the decision was permanent.
Under pressure from the U.S., representatives from the government in Baghdad and Kurdish leaders promised to resume discussions over long-withheld oil revenues, in exchange for the Kurds’ agreeing to stay in Iraq. Kurdish leaders seemed torn between their pressing need for new revenue and the emotional appeal of breaking with the Iraqi state. A deal with Baghdad would allow Barzani’s government to pay its employees and revive the local economy. And yet many Kurds I spoke to seemed unconcerned about financial hardship. They referred to the time, in the early nineties, when the fledgling Kurdish government was subject to the international sanctions imposed on Saddam, and its employees carried on without pay for nearly two years. On September 17th, the Kurdish region’s foreign minister, Falah Mustafa Bakir, delivered an ultimatum to Abadi’s government: if a deal isn’t struck within three months, the Kurds will proceed with independence. “This is the last chance,” he said.
After a lifetime of struggle, and of promises to the Kurdish people, Barzani seems determined to continue his course. He acknowledged that the prospect of statehood was less immediate than it had been in June, after the peshmerga seized Kirkuk and the other disputed territories. The presence of ISIS on the Kurdish borders and the difficulties in selling oil constituted a “setback,” he said. But, he added, “these events—economic and security developments—will not change the process. They may affect the calculations, but not the underlying principles.” He said that a referendum on independence could happen next year, or even this year: “Our priority now is to defeat ISIS and to create an environment fit to conduct a referendum.”
Peter Galbraith, the longtime diplomat and advocate of the Kurds, also served in East Timor and Croatia, regions that surmounted enormous difficulties to become separate states. He believes that once a people decide on independence almost nothing will dissuade them. “The desire to become independent is part of the consciousness of every Kurd,” Galbraith said. “They really feel like they are fighting and dying for something.”
In late July, as the Muslim month of fasting gave way to the celebration of Eid al-Fitr, Barzani travelled to the front lines to exhort his troops. In a series of stops, he told them that the peshmerga were making history, building the future for a Kurdish nation. All the money in the world was nothing compared with one drop of a peshmerga fighter’s blood, he said. But the men who sacrificed themselves would be fighting for their people’s freedom. One scorching afternoon, he addressed soldiers at a base on the eastern bank of the Tigris, where fortifications manned by ISIS militants loomed across the river. At a lectern draped with a Kurdish flag, Barzani apologized for the heat and urged the fighters to hold on a little longer. “Be patient,” he said. “Our day is near.” ♦
Dexter Filkins joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2011.
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Letter from Iraq
What We Left Behind in Iraq
By Dexter Filkins
Slide Show: On the Kurdish Front Against ISIS
By Dexter Filkins