TIME Iraq

Iraq’s Battleground Dams Are Key to Saving the Country from ISIS

Tribal fighters seen during a battle with ISIS militants, in Haditha, Iraq, Aug. 25, 2014.
Tribal fighters seen during a battle with ISIS militants, in Haditha, Iraq, Aug. 25, 2014. Osama Al-Dulaimi—Reuters

U.S. airstrikes prevent ISIS from seizing control of Iraq's water supply—but now the Kurds control a major dam, complicating Iraqi politics

When militants in Iraq made their recent assault on Haditha Dam, it pushed the U.S. to strike in this part of western Iraq for the first time since August. The Iraqi national army and allied Shi’ite militia have been battling the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) for months in Anbar province, but until yesterday, Washington had shied away.

“The potential loss of control of the dam or a catastrophic failure of the dam—and the flooding that might result— would have threatened U.S. personnel and facilities in and around Baghdad, as well as thousands of Iraqi citizens,” Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby said in statement Sunday, justifying strikes which seem to fall just outside of the American mission’s mandate.

The facility, wedged in the Euphrates River, is the country’s second-largest dam, and along with its big brother the Mosul Dam, on the Tigris River, it has been a strategic target of the expansionist Sunni militants. Over 95 percent of Iraq’s water comes from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, making it easy for anyone controlling those dams to put a stranglehold on the country’s water.

“If these dams—Mosul and Haditha— are outside of the control of the Iraqi state, it would be a national catastrophe,” says Shirouk al-Abayachi, a member of the Iraqi parliament and previously an adviser to the Ministry of Water Resources. “This is the ultimate danger.”

Given that ISIS’s stated goal is the end of the Iraqi state, to be replaced by a new, flourishing Islamic Caliphate, it’s no surprise that the terrorist group has focused on the country’s dams. The power to dry-out Baghdad and the Shi’ite farmlands south of the capital—along with the ability to provide water and the electricity produced by these facilities to their new subjects—could put ISIS in the driver’s seat.

“Military decision makers should take into consideration that these dams are the most important strategic locations in the country,” says al-Abayachi. “They should be very well protected because they affected everything—economy, agriculture, basic human needs and security.”

For all the talk that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 was primarily about oil, even in the early days of the offensive, significant military resources were put into controlling water and electricity facilities. In fact, this weekend wasn’t the first time U.S. forces were employed to keep the Haditha Dam out of unwanted hands. In June 2003, the U.S. carried out air strikes near Haditha to allow collation forces to seize the facility from Saddam Hussein’s army. But while al-Qaeda—which essentially gave birth to ISIS—and other militant groups repeatedly targeted infrastructure in Iraq during the chaotic years that followed the invasion, none dared to attempt ISIS’s blatant grab for control of these resources.

From January to April this year ISIS used its control of the Fallujah Dam to flood adjacent lands, and cut water to south and central Iraq. But the impact was nothing compared to what the militants would be able to do with control of the Mosul or Haditha Dams.

However, ISIS may not be they only group that wants strategic control over the taps in Iraq. In February, as Baghdad halted transfer payments to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil, the Kurds shut off the water to Iraqi farmers from Kurdish-controlled dams.

“Let them endure a water shortage; that’s their problem,” Akram Ahmad Rasul, general director of dams and water storage in the KRG told the local news agency Rudaw of the farmers outside the Kurdish region.

Since then the stakes have been raised. Kurdish peshmerga fighters led the ground offensive to retake the Mosul Dam from ISIS, as Iraqi national forces had already proved they were incapable of holding the position. Now the Kurds control the dam, and amid the chaos in recent months, they have intensified their calls for complete independence from Baghdad. “If the Kurds keep control of the Mosul Dam…they will have about 80 percent of Iraq’s water, which is tremendous leverage for them,” says John Schnittker, who served as a U.S. advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Agriculture. “They will essentially have a vital lock on the water supply for central and southern Iraq. It just leaves the government of Iraq in a very weakened position in negotiating with the Kurds.”

While the U.S. strikes seem to be the only way to keep these facilities out of the hands of ISIS militants, Schnittker said the attacks may have effects not necessarily intended by Washington. “The Kurds are in a really strong position to leverage Baghdad,” says Schnittker. “And my real concern is that the U.S. would be kind of complicit in a Kurdish land and water grab.”

TIME Iraq

Haider al-Abadi, Iraq’s Likely Next Leader, Has the World’s Toughest Job

Outgoing Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, alongside his designated successor Haidar al-Abadi, delivering a speech in which he announced withdrawing his candidacy for a third term in a photo released Aug. 14, 2014,
Outgoing Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, alongside his designated successor Haidar al-Abadi, delivering a speech in which he announced withdrawing his candidacy for a third term in a photo released Aug. 14, 2014, Iraqi Prime Minister's Office/AFP/Getty Images

With divisive Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki finally stepping down, Iraq looks to a new leader. But can he knit his country back together?

Few in Iraq this morning were mourning the loss of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who stepped down Thursday night after months of domestic and international pressure.

“We are thirsty for change. We had this government since 2003 and still it’s not united. We want someone now who can unite Iraq,” said Ammar Al-Jaf, watching al-Maliki’s resignation re-run on television in his barbershop in Erbil. A Sunni who grew up in Baghdad, like many here, he says al-Maliki favored his own Shiite—sect and in so doing deepened divisions between the people of Iraq.

Even in refugee camps, filled with Iraqis who fled the Islamic State of Iraq and greater Syria (ISIS) in June, there were calls for al-Maliki to step down. Many displaced Iraqis said they fled because they feared being caught up in battles between Iraqi government troops and ISIS, but still preferred the rule of the Islamist militants to al-Maliki’s Shiite-first agenda.

File photo of Haider Abadi at a news conference in Baghdad
Haider al-Abadi at a news conference in Baghdad in July 2014. Ahmed Saad—Reuters

The hope now is that Haider al-Abadi, a veteran Shiite lawmaker and the man named to replace al-Maliki, will be able to bring Iraq’s divided political factions together. “Al-Abadi promised to support dialogue with the Sunnis and said that he will consult Kurdish and Sunni factions,” said Sarmad al-Taee an Iraqi journalist and commentator. He argues that al-Maliki ran Iraq and his own Al-Dawa party with orders rather than discourse, alienating Kurds, Sunni and eventually his own Shiite sect.

This feeling of disenfranchisement among Sunnis may have helped ISIS claim, and hold, swathes of Iraqi territory. The well-armed Sunni tribes of Nineveh province and west to the Syrian border could have turned the tide against ISIS, but there was little incentive to fight for a government they felt has sidelined their needs for years. On top of that, many Sunnis and Kurds argue al-Maliki stacked what should have been a non-partisan, non-sectarian army with politically appointed, often Shiite commanders, turning the Iraqi national forces in to his own private militia. That army proved weak and thousands of Iraqi soldiers simply dropped their weapons and fled in June as ISIS fighters approached.

“In every country the military should be separate from the government,” said Al-Jaf. “But al-Maliki used the military to serve himself. The army should serve the country and the people. He filled all the military’s with high positions from his family.”

Now, there is heavy pressure from inside Iraq, regional leaders and the U.S. to dismantle the sectarianism that has fractured the country and left it vulnerable to ISIS. Al-Taee, who is from Basra, says many Shiite leaders now understand this and will push for more inclusive politics under the new government. “If al-Abadi doesn’t do this he will be considered weak and the other party leaders will sack him,” he said, noting that a failure on this front could cause the international community to withdraw diplomatic and military support. “The Shiites now know the importance of dialogue and they don’t want to make the same mistake as before.”

But it may be too late. The mistakes by al-Maliki’s government have further exacerbated the divisions in an already fractured country and may have made the disintegration of Iraq all but inevitable. Many here now talk of dividing the country into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish territories. Since the start of the crisis with ISIS sectarian calls to arms have intensified on both sides of the Sunni-Shiite divide. The task ahead for al-Abadi will not be an easy one.

“If he can build a strong Iraq and share equally with all the people of Iraq, the people will support him and we can defeat ISIS,” said Irfan Ali, an engineer from Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah. Getting the Sunni masses and tribes back on board for a national government will be key. But even if the Sunnis give their support, Shiites and Kurds may be hesitant to provide them with arms to fight ISIS—worried about where those guns will be pointed once the militants are defeated.

For their part, the Kurds have kept their distance with the central government, and are now engaged with ISIS themselves. They have been in conflict with Baghdad for months over power sharing and oil exports resulting in the central government halting transfer payments to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in January. “We have been clear that we are not just looking for a change in the faces in the government,” said Falah Mustafa Bakir who heads the KRG’s Department of Foreign Relations. “We want a change in the power sharing arrangement and a more inclusive government.”

Amid the chaos created by the ISIS invasion, the Kurds have managed to secure contested territories, such as Kirkuk, and have inched closer to independence. Last month, Kurdish President Massoud Barzani said that he will hold a referendum on Kurdish sovereignty, a decades-old goal of the Kurdish people.

It’s not clear what a new prime minister could offer the Sunnis and Kurds to bring them back into the political fold with Baghdad. But leaders in Iraq seem hopeful, though cautious. “This is the start of process,” said Bakir. “But we need to wait and see. We shouldn’t be too optimistic.”

TIME Iraq

Kurds Welcome U.S. Help in Iraq, But Remember History of Betrayal

Kurdish military volunteers amass near the frontline at the outskirts of the town of Makhmor, 35 miles south of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Region of Iraq, Aug. 9. 2014.
Kurdish military volunteers amass near the frontline at the outskirts of the town of Makhmor, 35 miles south of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Region of Iraq, Aug. 9. 2014. Sebastian Meyer—The Washington Post/Corbis

A brief history of the Kurdish/U.S. relationship shows why

For a few hours, the city of Erbil was in a state of panic. Word came that Gwar, just 30 minutes from the Kurdish capital, had been taken by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and Kurds and ex-pats alike were packing up, trying to book airline tickets or, in a worse case scenario, preparing to drive to Turkey. But then American war planes swooped in and began bombing and President Obama pledged to defend Erbil.

Kurds breathed a sigh of relief. “The most important development was the decision by the United States to save lives,” says Hoshyar Zebari, a former Iraqi foreign minister and a prominent Kurd. “U.S. help is deeply appreciated.” Dr. Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Kurdish President Masoud Barzani, welcomed the UN resolution condemning ISIS, and praised coalition forces for their technical and humanitarian assistance. He noted that the U.S. had co-ordinated tactical efforts with Peshmerga forces, allowing the Kurdish fighters to prepare to go on the offensive. “We used to say Kurds don’t have any friends but the mountains. But that doesn’t ring true anymore,” he said.

That said, many Kurds still carry lingering worries that the U.S. will betray them once again. “There’s a history of contact and betrayal with the U.S. and the Kurds where the U.S. made contact and helped but never jumped in with both feet,” says Quil Lawrence, author of The Invisible Nation: How the Kurds’ Quest for Statehood Is Shaping Iraq and the Middle East, and a correspondent with NPR. “The Kurds have been very frustrated with a lot of the stages long the way,” he says. “But certainly these airstrikes would restore some of that trust. I feel like I’ve had many Kurds quote Churchill to me in the past week: ‘Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing… after they have exhausted all other possibilities.’”

Finally, it seems, the U.S. has exhausted all other possibilities in Iraq and all that’s left is to rely upon the Kurds. It’s only taken a century.

Nearly a hundred years ago, the Kurdish rebel leader Sheikh Mahmoud Barzanji carried around in his pocket a copy of Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points, so inspired was he by American self-determination. And yet it would be the Americans who would help deny the Kurds the same right at nearly every turn. Two years after Wilson delivered that speech, the Allies agreed to an independent Kurdistan in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. But by 1923, in the Treaty of Lausanne that recognized Kemal Attaturk’s Turkey, the international community abandoned the Kurds and the referendum promised in the Treaty of Sevres was never realized. Thus began the Kurdish struggle for independence.

After several thwarted attempts to break away from Iraq, the Kurds finally got their first indirect aid from the U.S. in the early 1970s, more thanks to the Shah of Iran than anything else. In 1972, Iraq aligned with the Soviet Union and the Shah pushed the U.S. to arm the Kurds by selling them Soviet weapons seized in Egypt. By 1974, the Kurds were in open rebellion led by Mullah Mustafa Barzani, of the same tribe Barzanji was from. But by 1975, Iran and Iraq made peace under the Algiers Accords. Iranian support for the Kurdish uprising abruptly came to a halt and the rebellion collapsed.

Barzani fled to Iran and then America, where he died in 1979, the same year of the Iranian Revolution, where yet again U.S. allegiances shifted. And, yet, again, the Kurds were the unwitting victim.

Towards the end of the First Gulf War, the Kurds saw a window for independence. Encouraged by the Americans, they rose up against Hussein for the third time. Hussein sent in the army and rolled over the Kurds, slaughtering thousands of villagers as they passed through. More than 1.5 million Kurds fled through the mountains to Turkey. American troops and arms never materialized, though they eventually sent in air support, which helped the Kurds push Hussein back to Kirkuk. In order to protect the Kurds, a no-fly zone was formed that lasted nearly a decade, until the Second Gulf War.

By the time the Turks refused America passage for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Kurds were in a position to offer themselves as a viable alternative. Fighting side-by-side with American special forces, the Kurds believed that their day had finally come: independence couldn’t be far away. But in the aftermath of the invasion, the Kurds were taken aback when the U.S. tried to disarm them and insisted they join the new government. Warily, the did so, but Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has not been the partner they’d hoped for.

Maliki warned repeatedly that the Kurds did not have the authority to drill and export their own oil, and that empowering them would lead to the end of Iraq. By late 2011 some 60,000 Kurdish peshmerga and Iraqi forces were at a stand off near Kirkuk over the oil dispute. But, then, in 2013, Fallujah fell to Sunni extremists and then in the summer of 2014, Mosul and Tikrit fell to ISIS. The Iraqi Army retreated back to Baghdad. The Kurds took full control of Kirkuk and its refinery.

But U.S. refusal to equip the Kurds, and Baghdad’s refusal to share U.S. arms with the peshmerga, left Kurdish forces weakened, low on ammunition and unable to defend a 600-mile border border. ISIS advanced within 30 minutes of the Kurdish capital of Erbil as panicked Kurds and foreign workers began packing and fleeing to the airport or north towards Turkey. Last week, the U.S. stepped in and bombed ISIS and President Obama pledged to defend Erbil. For the first time ever, the U.S. said it would directly arm Kurdish troops. It’s not exactly self-determination — but it’s a start.

 

TIME Iraq

Leadership Crisis Hits Iraq as Aid Agencies Scramble to Help Refugees

Mideast Iraq
Iraqis chant pro-government slogans and wave national flags to show support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, during a demonstration in Baghdad, Iraq on August 9, 2014. Karim Kadim — AP

Political discord, a humanitarian crisis in the north, and the ongoing war against Sunni extremists have rendered the situation in Iraq extremely unstable

Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is resisting mounting pressure for his resignation, and has threatened to take legal action against the country’s President Fouad Massoum for failing to back his bid for a third term in office. The political discord comes as a humanitarian crisis continues to unfold in the country’s north, where tens of thousands of refugees are fleeing attacks being carried out by Sunni extremists.

Late on Sunday, Maliki accused Massoum of mounting “a coup on the constitution and the political process in a country that is governed by a democratic and federal system.”

Maliki says he is entitled to a third term because his coalition won in polls held in April. However, he has not earned support from the legislature.

“Getting the confidence of Parliament is key,” Lina Khatib, the director of the Carnegie Middle East Center, tells TIME. “Maliki did not get that as a result of his mishandling of the current crisis in Iraq as well as his divisive policies over the two terms he has served as Prime Minister.”

The U.S., which has begun targeting militants in northern Iraq in limited airstrikes, urged caution. “The government formation process is critical in terms of sustaining stability and calm in Iraq, and our hope is that Mr. Maliki will not stir those waters,” Kerry told reporters in Sydney on Monday.

The embattled Shi’ite premier has been accused of stoking sectarian fighting by marginalizing Sunni rivals in the government and military in order to consolidate his grip on power since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011.

“It seems that Maliki’s priorities have been centered on trying to secure a third term for himself as Prime Minister rather than security of Iraq,” says Khatib. “His leadership performance has been abysmal.”

The New York Times reported early on Monday that the Prime Minister ordered tanks and an unspecified number of additional commandos to take up key positions within the capital’s heavily fortified Green Zone on Sunday, spurring fears of confrontation with his political opponents.

Meanwhile, further north in Iraq’s Kurdish region, aid agencies continued to scramble to help the wave of refugees that was unleashed nine days ago, when forces loyal to the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) launched a savage military offensive in the region, aimed at removing religious minorities from the large swath of territory between Mosul and the Tigris River to the west.

“Their target towns have been towns, villages, areas where there are substantial non-Sunni, religious minorities,” says Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. ISIS’s goal, he said, “seems rather clear.”

The U.N. Refugee Agency reports at least 30,000 people have managed to escape from the mountains near Sinjar after being trapped there without water or supplies by ISIS forces. However, humanitarian groups on the ground said the situation in the region is still critical.

“Its imperative that we do everything in our power to ensure these people receive the life-saving assistance they need,” said David Swanson, an official with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Late last weekend, U.S. forces began dropping relief supplies, and targeting ISIS positions in Sinjar in an effort to break the group’s siege of the conflict zone.

TIME Iraq

Experts Skeptical of U.S. Airstrikes in Iraq

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar west of Mosul, take refuge at Dohuk province
Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing the violence in the Iraqi town of Sinjar west of Mosul, take refuge in Dohuk province on August 7, 2014. Reuters

“It maybe good for the U.S. administration to understand that the world does not stop turning and does not hold its breath while they do nothing,”

President Barack Obama had a message for the thousands of minority Yazidis under siege by militants in Iraq late Thursday night: “America is coming to help.” But despite humanitarian airdrops Thursday and American airstrikes against the militants that started Friday, many analysts remain skeptical that the U.S. can do much to help in a fluid, fast-moving and increasingly dangerous crisis.

“Things are happening very fast,” Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior crisis response adviser, told TIME by phone from northern Iraq on Friday. “Obama’s speech [Thursday] sounded to me as though he was reacting to events that happened last Sunday. The situation can change and does change very quickly in these fluid circumstances.”

On Sunday, about 200,000 people fled from Sinjar region as militants from the group Islamic State of Iraq and Syris (ISIS) beat back Kurdish forces—known locally as the Peshmerga—from the region. Following the assault on Sinjar, humanitarian officials estimated that somewhere between 10,000 and 40,000 people who failed to escape the city were trapped on the nearby sunbaked mountains, surrounded by ISIS fighters. Dozens are believed to have died due to dehydration and exposure.

“It maybe good for the U.S. administration to understand that the world does not stop turning and does not hold its breath, while they do nothing,” Rovera said.

The thousands of displaced from Sinjar who had been camped out in mosques, camps and cars began moving again on Thursday toward the Turkish border. TIME was unable to independently verify whether the border remained open on Friday. Since unleashing a blitzkrieg offensive at the beginning of the month, ISIS has beaten back the Peshmerga throughout northern Iraq. Humanitarian groups on the ground estimate that at least 200,000 people have been displaced.

“The Kurdistan region was already struggling to host such a large number of people before the latest influx,” said David Swanson, an official with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs based in Erbil, in northern Iraq. Before ISIS’ August offensive against the Peshmerga, Iraq’s Kurdish region was already home to 380,000 internally displaced persons along, with 230,000 Syrian refugees.

“The government of Kurdistan can no longer bear the burden of this influx alone and will most certainly need additional international support,” Swanson said.

As fighting continued to rage in northern Iraq, Obama also pledged to defend the Kurdish capital of Ebril if ISIS forces move on the city. But Washington’s promises may do little to repair the damage done to the leadership’s reputation in the wake of demoralizing losses on the battlefield to Islamist fighters.

Analysts say the retreat of Peshmerga troops in the face of the ISIS onslaught reveals more about the political failings of the Kurdish leadership than it does about the capabilities of what had long been considered one of the most formidable fighting forces in the region.

“This advance in Sinjar and in other areas has shown the structural weakness of the KRG, the Kurdistan Regional Government,” Kawa Hassan, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Middle East Center, told TIME.

A report presented by the parliamentary commission on the Peshmerga last week explicitly stated that, while Kurdish forces had high morale, they were still under-equipped and not being paid in a timely fashion, Hassan said. The rout of Kurdish fighters in Sinjar is also particularly damming for the administration of the Kurdish Regional Government’s President Masoud Barzani. Sinjar is considered a stronghold of the president’s Kurdistan Democratic Party, and his inability to protect the region will not likely fade from memory soon.

“This means there was no strategy planning, their intelligence was not sufficient and now its clear the Peshmerga forces in Sinjar didn’t even have enough bullets and they didn’t have enough weaponry to counter ISIS,” Hassan said. “The Kurdish leadership failed dismally.”

TIME Iraq

Be Captured and Killed, or Risk Dying of Thirst: The Awful Choice Facing the Refugees of Sinjar

Thousands flee Iraq's Sinjar
Thousands of Iraqis flee from the town of Sinjar, near the city of Mosul, to Erbil and Dohuk after armed groups affiliated with the Islamic State seized the town early on August 4, 2014. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

Tens of thousands of Iraqis are trapped on a barren mountain without water or aid. If they descend, they risk being massacred by Sunni militia

With the world’s focus on the conflict in Gaza, little international attention is being paid to an appalling humanitarian crisis unfolding in Iraq.

In the country’s far northwest, tens of thousands of people fleeing the Sunni extremist group Islamic State have been trapped on a mountain for days without water or other supplies. The refugees, primarily from the country’s Yazidi religious sect, have begun to die from dehydration and exposure, with no relief in sight.

They face an excruciating dilemma — attempt to flee and risk being captured and killed by insurgents, or remain on Mount Sinjar in the hope that aid will somehow get through.

“A humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in Sinjar,” said Nickolay Mladenov, special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Iraq, in a statement released earlier this week. “The Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government should urgently restore their security cooperation in dealing with the crisis.”

Humanitarian workers say there is no way to deliver supplies to the area outside of intermittent airdrops being conducted by the Iraqi Air Force.

“It’s not possible to get to them by road, obviously because ISIS controls the access roads, so nobody can go, they cannot leave,” Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s senior crisis response adviser, told TIME by phone from northern Iraq on Wednesday.

“It’s going to take a few more days before things coalesce into a more coordinated response.”

On Tuesday, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that at least 40 children holed up on the mountain had died as result of dehydration.

“These children from the Yazidi minority died as a direct consequence of violence, displacement and dehydration over the past two days,” said Marzio Babille, a UNICEF representative, in a statement. UNICEF estimates that there are approximately 25,000 children still stranded in and around Sinjar.

Islamic State, which is notorious for its hatred of any group that does not abide by its fundamentalist interpretation of Sunni Islam, is particularly harsh on the Yazidi, who follow an ancient religion with resemblances to Zoroastrianism.

Reports and photos posted by Islamic State earlier appeared to show summary executions of Yazidi men.

The insurgents have “been behaving in a very brutal way with everybody,” says Rovera. “With the Yazidi, it’s worse, simply because the Yazidis’ religion [is] considered devil worship.”

Earlier this summer, Islamic State, along with a smattering of Sunni militias, launched a blitzkrieg throughout northern Iraq capturing large swaths of territory along both the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Since then, the militant group has enforced its brand of draconian rule over their territory — targeting religious minorities and destroying troves of prized cultural and religious artifacts deemed heretical.

On Sunday, at least 200,000 people fled the Sinjar region as militants loyal to Islamic State routed Kurdish forces.

Thousands of refugees have made it to the Kurdish Autonomous Region in the far north of the country, but supplies are being stretched by the day as the displaced crowd into refugee camps, cramped apartments and mosques.

In the absence of strong military support from Baghdad, Kurdish militia fighters, including troops from as far away as Turkey and Syria, launched a massive counteroffensive on Tuesday in attempt to dislodge the heavily armed ISIS fighters from the northwest.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: July 30

1. The bipartisan deal on VA reform is a good first step, but more must be done to fix this badly broken system.

By Jesse Sloman at the Council on Foreign Relations

2. Notes from an intervention: What went wrong in Libya.

By Nathan Pippinger in Democracy

3. An independent Kurdistan could reshape the middle east – if we let it.

By Jonathan Foreman in Newsweek

4. Amtrak doesn’t need a writer’s residency; it needs to deliver affordable on-time transportation.

By Christopher Kempf in Jacobin

5. “Our nation’s baby steps towards political, social and economic inclusion could be stalling.

By Maya Rockeymoore in Huffington Post

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Iraq

In the Midst of Iraq’s Chaos, the Kurds Inch Towards Independence

Kurdish protesters
Iraqi Kurdish protesters display the flag of the autonomous Kurdistan region on July 3, 2014. Safin Hamed—/AFP/Getty Images

Militants from ISIS are threatening Iraq's capital of Baghdad, but in autonomous Kurdistan, things have never been better

As the Iraqi army continues to battle Sunni militants for control of its territory―with forces from the Islamic State not far outside the capital of Baghdad―Kurdish President Masoud Barzani is sitting comfortably in quiet Erbil. After over a century of demands for independence, Kurds may be closer than to securing their statehood. “In Kurdistan we have a government that is functioning, a parliament that is meeting and professional, dedicated Peshmerga forces,” says Falah Mustafa Bakir who heads the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Department of Foreign Relations. “In Iraq you have none of that.”

With the autonomy granted to the KRG under the Iraqi constitution, Kurds have managed an entity that looks more like a functional state than many long-established nations in the region. They secure their own borders and are sidestepping Baghdad to exporting their own oil. Their independent police force even monitors speeders with traffic cameras.

In central Erbil, the Kurdish de-facto capital, Hoshang Assad wheels his car through the streets. The 26-year-old taxi driver explains how Kurds have all the trappings of a modern nation-state. “We have our own language, our own culture and our own land,” he says. “We have a good economy now, we have oil, we have everything we need to make our state.”

But while Kurds believe they are a nation now in everything but name, those outside its borders are less sanguine about the possibility of true independence. Assad’s car seats are covered with massive American flags and like many Kurds he recite praise for the US, the Kurds oldest, and at times only, ally. Washington, though, hasn’t exactly been a cheerleader of Kurdish independence. “In 2003 the U.S. wanted the Kurds to give up federalism and give up their Peshmerga forces. The Kurds refused,” said Gareth Stansfield, a professor of Middle East politics at the University of Exeter in Britain. “Imagine what Erbil would look like today if they had given up the Peshmerga…ISIS would be flying its black flag in Erbil.”

In the past three weeks, the Peshmerga have fortified the Kurdish frontiers and moved into contested areas like oil-rich Kirkuk, even as Iraq’s national army fled invading fighters from ISIS. And as the black flags of ISIS stake claim to neighboring towns, the sun-crested Kurdish flag still flies above the secured streets of Kurdistan. Since 1945, when the Kurds briefly had an independent state, this flag has represented Kurdish aspirations for statehood. But after years of fighting alongside U.S. troops, implementing U.S.-favored free market economics and now allowing hundreds of thousands of displaced Iraqis and Syrian refugees to take shelter in their territory, Kurds may deserve a sportsmanship trophy―but it may not earn a seat at the United Nations. “The U.S. has invested so much time and treasure into the idea of Iraq as we know it,” said Stansfield. “The collapse of Iraq will be seen as a waste of American life and money.”

But Bakir, who was with the Kurdish delegation in Washington this week, believes that the latest crises may cause the U.S. to change its position. “The U.S. has seen the difference between Erbil and Baghdad,” said Bakir. He says the Kurds are now on a two-track approach, still willing to compromise with the Iraqi government in Baghdad―but also ready to make their moves toward independence. “Baghdad always promises Kurds the world when Baghdad is weak,” says Stansfield. “And then as soon as Baghdad is strong enough to re-impose its authority over the Kurds then it comes back with its engines.”

The idea of splitting up the country, whose borders were drawn by colonial authorities Britain and France a century ago and defined by the Sykes-Picot Agreement, is uncomfortable for many―particularly neighboring states like Turkey with large Kurdish minorities of their own, pushed up against the aspirational state’s borders.

“Kurdish national aspirations will not stop in Zakho,” says Hosham Dawod, an Erbil-based researcher for the French National Center for Scientific Research, referring to the Kurdish town that sits on the Turkish border. “They will cross the border. Right now this Sykes-Picot map is looking very weak.”

And while Iraqi Kurdish leaders caution that their national aspirations are confined to land within Iraq’s current borders, there is worry among regional and international powers that Kurdish independence could have a domino effect. Iran and Syria both have large Kurdish populations. Amid the chaos in Syria, Kurds have asserted a degree of control in their villages, and Iran may fear all this will inspire its own Kurdish minority. Stansfield says Iran also benefits from having a weak Shia-led state next door.

But with Iraq in turmoil it is possible that Turkey will get onboard, preferring a pragmatic Kurdish state to a caliphate on its southern border. Already, the Turks have helped the Kurds export oil through their territory and signed a 50-year gas deal with the KRG―acts frowned upon by Baghdad. Currently, the Kurds are exporting around 100,000 barrels per day, but that’s not enough to support a new state of over 6 million people. Israel has become a natural market for this oil, but it’s not clear who else will buy all those barrels, as many countries fear buying from the Kurds would cause Baghdad to cut off its much larger exports.

And while the Kurds have created relative autonomy and prosperity in their enclave, their finances are less secure. Baghdad has withheld millions of dollars in transfer payments to Erbil since January over oil the sales and Kurdish civil servants are still waiting for paychecks the KRG doesn’t have the money to write. Nonetheless, jumping off a sinking Iraq may offer a better path to prosperity than staying within its borders. “The political landscape has changed and the balance of power has changed,” said Bakir. “There is a new reality and that requires a new policy and a new approach.”

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