Azad Lashkari / Courtesy Reuters Iraqi Kurds carry fire torches up a mountain where a giant flag of Iraq's autonomous Kurdistan region is laid, as they celebrate Newroz Day, a festival marking their spring and new year, March 20, 2014.

The Kurds' Big Year

The Political Conditions That Favor Kurdish Independence in Iraq

For the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, 2014 was more momentous a year than any since the region won autonomy, in 1991. On December 9, 2014, Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), reaffirmed his commitment to Kurdish statehood after making a historic call for an independence referendum on June 30, 2014. Barzani’s announcement came after the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham’s (ISIS) incursion into northern Iraq earlier that month, which effectively eliminated Baghdad’s control over the disputed territories of Kurdistan. As the Iraqi army abandoned its positions, the Kurdish security forces, known as the peshmerga, advanced beyond KRG-controlled areas, taking over additional territory including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, considered by Iraqi Kurds as a jewel in the crown of their territorial ambitions. Asserting that Iraq had been effectively “partitioned” and that the “conditions are right,” Barzani declared, "from now on, we will not hide that the goal of Kurdistan is independence.”

In the intervening six months,events on the ground and Western attitudes toward independence have shifted even further in the Kurds’ favor. A few days after Barzani’s June announcement, ISIS launched a war against the Kurds by intensifying its attacks in the disputed territories. As July wore on, the KRG failed to defend its positions from ISIS’ attacks, putting a damper on Kurdish exuberance about the upcoming referendum. But even that turned into a political blessing for Barzani's government. Western powers, including the United States and its NATO partners initiated direct military cooperation with Erbil, the Kurdish capital in the north, and military aid began arriving from Europe on August 15. Erbil, which now has independent defense relations with Western powers, is unlikely to relinquish such control to Baghdad and sacrifice its chance for statehood. 

Barzani soon gained another advantage, although many, particularly in Baghdad, do not see it that way. In late August, as Erbil began receiving Western weapons and military trainers, Barzani issued his terms for joining the new Iraqi government that would eventually be headed by Haider

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