The partition of Iraq inched ever-closer as the president of the country’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, Masoud Barzani, announced plans to schedule a referendum on independence.
Public opinion polls and previous votes indicate that this measure will pass with ease, paving the way for an independent Kurdistan in northwestern Iraq.
“From now on, we won’t hide that that’s our goal,” Barzani, president of the 40,000 sq. km. Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), said to the BBC on July 1, talking about his aspiration for independence. “Iraq is effectively partitioned now. Are we supposed to stay locked in the tragic situation in which the country is living? It's not me who will decide on independence. It's the people."
Barzani said the vote will come in "a matter of months," adding that the KRG will first lay the groundwork by establishing an independent electoral authority.
"We hope that this state will have the best of relations with all of its neighbors, and we will not be a threat to anyone at all, I'm sure," he added.
An enlarged army and air force
While Barzani's comments were the first overt avowal of the Iraqi Kurds’ move toward partition, DEBKA Weekly's military sources report they have been taking often discreet military steps to support their plans:
1. The Kurdish Peshmerga army has kicked off a massive recruitment drive, announcing that all men aged 20-35 in the KRG’s 8 million-strong population will be drafted into operational military service. This is tantamount to full mobilization.
2. They are building a large Kurdish air force, which will be run out of a command center at Kirkuk Air Base, which was known as "Krabtown" during the Americans' stay in Iraq. This facility and Kirkuk’s oil fields were grabbed by the Kurds when the Iraq army fled from the advancing Sunni Islamists. The KRG’s capital, Irbil, will also become a major air base, with part of the city's international airport commandeered for military use.
Kurdish hopes were bolstered by a comment by US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey on June 2 that Washington had lost confidence in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Iraqi army, and was sniffing out other potential proxies.
Dempsey said a key role of the 1,000 American troops in Iraq was "assessing whether the country's security forces can hold together and whether its leaders are confident they can do their jobs.”
The only acceptable negotiating partner for Sunnis
Although the general didn’t come out and say it, the only army in Iraq that fits this bill is the Peshmerga.
Our Washington sources relay that during his visit to Irbil in late April, US Secretary of State John Kerry had a sit-down with Barzani.
The Kurdish leader convinced Kerry that the Kurds are the only group in Iraq able to deal directly with the Sunnis and negotiate local military and political arrangements that will distance them from ISIS, which this week shortened its acronym to IS, the Islamic State.
Barzani assured the American diplomat that if he can smooth things out with local Sunni leaders, the Peshmerga will be well on its way to capturing the Niveneh Province in northern Iraq from the Islamists, including Iraq's second city, Mosul.
From there, Barzani mapped out an advance toward Tikrit, where the Iraqi Army this week fell flat in its attempt to retake the Sunni city. The Peshmerga then plans to move in on Diyala Province, in the east. All in all, the Kurdish leader envisaged his army eventually wiping out the Al Qaeda branch’s dramatic gains.
Barzani also had an optimistic prediction for Syria. He told Kerry that he had enough influence on the Syrian Kurdish minority to resolve their internal factional disputes and stabilize a region that abuts on Turkey in the north and ISIS-controlled territory around Aleppo – an appealing prospect indeed.
Close Kurdish-Israeli-Turkish collaboration
DEBKA Weekly's military and intelligence sources caution that Barzani may be wearing rose-tinted spectacles for the Peshmerga's strength; he may also be overly optimistic about his chances of achieving full Kurdish independence. Boasting may be a good ploy to win US support for promoting the Kurdish cause, but it is likely to fall on hard ground in Iraq when he tries to bring them to reality.
At this point, the Kurdish leader does have some friends in high places. Our intelligence sources say Turkey and Israel are sharing intelligence with the Kurds, and Israel is providing military aid and backup. Barzani's right-hand man, KRG Director of Intelligence and Security Masrour Barjani, Turkish intelligence (MIT) chief Hakan Fidan and Mossad director Tamir Pardo have been holding regular meetings.
The three men are also behind another top-secret scheme to draw money into the future independent Kurdistan by doubling Kirkuk's oil production from 200,000 to 400,000 barrels per day. The oil is exported from Iraq through Turkey and then transported to Israel, where it makes its way onto the international oil market.