The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG)’s Peshmerga army, with its 45,000 well-trained, disciplined and armed soldiers, was until recently rated the strongest army in Iraq. Large American and Israeli military delegations are permanently stationed in the Kurdish capital of Irbil to advise President Massoud Barzani and his nephew, Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, on all matters military, intelligence, and strategic.
This military might and its handy location — bordering Turkey in the north, Syria in the west and Iran in the east – have transformed the 14 million-strong KRG into an entity with regional clout. It doesn’t hurt that the KRG’s neighbors all have sizable Kurdish minorities, with the potential for revolt in support of demands for their own autonomy and able to break away and join the KRG to expand its territorial reach.
The three-year bloody civil war in Syria also offered the KRG its first chance to reach all the way to the Mediterranean and forge a route for exporting the oil of the Kirkuk fields without having to pipe it through Syria or Turkey.
At the moment, the Kurds send their oil to the Israeli ports of Ashkelon and Eilat via Turkey for storage and transshipment to other destinations.
All this has made Irbil with its million inhabitants a boomtown, emerging in recent years as one of most modern and thriving cities in the Middle East. Its international airport is Iraq’s aviation hub for transport to other parts of the region as well as to Europe and the US.
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IS threatens Kurdistan’s glory days
This year saw the Barzanis working to lock down their newfound prosperity. The Peshmerga strengthened its defenses against outside intruders with a security belt stretching more than 1,000 km from the Iranian border to Syria, and skirting around Mosul.
On June 13, the Peshmerga used the Iraqi army’s retreat to seize the city of Kirkuk and its oil fields with nary a shot fired, bringing its oil riches of 400,000 bpd into the KRG fold. And on July 1, Barzani announced that the semi-autonomous region would hold a referendum on independence within months.
But the looming threat of the Islamist troops trouncing through Iraq was not to be ignored and when, in January, the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) seized large parts of the western Anbar Province, including Falluja, and then Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, the Kurds had some serious thinking to do.
The two Barzanis calculated that Al Qaeda was zeroing in on Baghdad and not Irbil. So they stood aside from the melee around them, counting on IS to follow suit.
Last week, they were proven wrong.
The Al Qaeda Islamists simultaneously opened three fronts against the KRG, and the magnitude of this error in judgment became all too apparent.
Three battles rage on Kurdish soil
With its move on Kurdistan, IS once again demonstrated wily tactical and intelligence acumen. Before going into action, the military planners plotting alongside IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi probed for weaknesses in the Kurdish strategy and lines. What they saw was that the Kurds, in their desire to advance into territory close to Baghdad and strengthen their hold on Kirkuk, had grabbed Khanaqin in eastern Iraq’s Diyala Province and Tuz Khurmatu in Salah ad-Din Province, 90 km south of Kirkuk.
This left the Peshmerga extended into territory hundreds of kilometers from their home in Irbil and northern Kurdistan, holding territory inhabited by mixed populations of Turkmen and other minorities who have no wish to live under Kurdish rule.
IS launched into the breach by breaking into Kurdish territory at the three points where Kurdish forces were spread thinnest on the semiautonomous region’s 1,050-km long front.
At the time of this writing, IS and Kurdish troops are engaged in fierce battles in those three sectors on Kurdish soil (see attached map):
1. Sinjar Mountains: IS has taken the main city in the mountainous area that separates Iraq from Syria, delivering Mosul Christians and Yazidis – a sect that combines elements of Islam and Zoroastrianism – a sinister ultimatum: Convert to Islam or die. The threat has forced 70,000 refugees to flee towards Irbil with no food or water presenting the world with a desperate human plight.
The same ultimatum was given the inhabitants of the 14 Christian towns overrun by the Islamists this week, forcing tens of thousands more to flee their towns between Mosul and Irbil.
The Archbishop of Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah implored for help Thursday, demanding that the UN Security Council intervene immediately in the new catastrophe.
2. Mosul Dam: The Peshmerga commander of the hydroelectric dam on the Tigris River, which provides power to all of northern Iraq, admitted Sunday, Aug. 3, that Iraq’s largest dam was under threat. Fierce battles were ongoing with portions of the dam passing back and forth between IS and the Kurdish forces, until the huge facility fell finally into Islamist hands Thursday, Aug. 7.
A Pentagon report warned that "a failure at the dam could send a 65-foot wave not just across parts northern Iraq" – most of Kurdistan's territory, but flood Baghdad with water one meter one meter deep.
3.Jalula: The Kurdish army was also beaten back in the eastern town of Jalula, near the Iraq-Iran border, where it had held up an earlier jihadist advance in June. Here, the Kurds are fighting amongst a largely Arab population, where they enjoy scant sympathy.
Old rivals in new alliance against the Islamist onrush
Despite the continuing spats between Irbil and Baghdad over power-sharing and oil revenues, the Islamist onslaught on their country has forced the two capitals into a form of cooperation to curb the enemy advance. Baghdad is providing the Kurds with some air support, while the Barzanis have opened the Kirkuk airfield which their army controls as base for Iraqi air strikes against the jihadis.
Shiite militias are also reported to have begun flying troops into the KRG city of Sulaymaniyah for transfer to Shiite villages south of the Kurdish line of control and their defense against Islamist encroachment.
But meanwhile a new refugee problem is growing by leaps and bounds inside Iraq.
DEBKA Weekly’s Washington sources say the dire IS menace overtaking Kurdistan has stirred US President Barack Obama into looking closely at the possible deployment of the US Air Force to support the Peshmerga in the fight which may determine the Kurdish republic’s very survival.
This US assistance was not proffered when the Iraqi national army was routed at every hand by the Islamists. But now, there is no time to be lost.