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Iraq

Kurds emerge as winners in chaos

Calls for statehood grow even stronger

  • Kurdish security forces prepare combat positions while a Kurdish flag flies outside the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 19, 2014. As Sunni insurgents swept over a large chunk of northern Iraq and barreled toward Baghdad the past two weeks, Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga seized territory of their own, effectively expanding the Kurdish-run region into areas it has long claimed for itself. Most notably, they grabbed the oil center of Kirkuk. And in contrast to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which is in turmoil, the Kurds are growing more confident, vowing to increase oil sales independent of the central government. (AP Photo)

    Kurdish security forces prepare combat positions while a Kurdish flag flies outside the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 19, 2014. As Sunni insurgents swept over a large chunk of northern Iraq and barreled toward Baghdad the past two weeks, Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga seized territory of their own, effectively expanding the Kurdish-run region into areas it has long claimed for itself. Most notably, they grabbed the oil center of Kirkuk. And in contrast to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which is in turmoil, the Kurds are growing more confident, vowing to increase oil sales independent of the central government. (AP Photo)

  • Kurdish security forces prepare combat positions outside the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 19, 2014. As Sunni insurgents swept over a large chunk of northern Iraq and barreled toward Baghdad the past two weeks, Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga seized territory of their own, effectively expanding the Kurdish-run region into areas it has long claimed for itself. Most notably, they grabbed the oil center of Kirkuk. And in contrast to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which is in turmoil, the Kurds are growing more confident, vowing to increase oil sales independent of the central government. (AP Photo)

    Kurdish security forces prepare combat positions outside the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 19, 2014. As Sunni insurgents swept over a large chunk of northern Iraq and barreled toward Baghdad the past two weeks, Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga seized territory of their own, effectively expanding the Kurdish-run region into areas it has long claimed for itself. Most notably, they grabbed the oil center of Kirkuk. And in contrast to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which is in turmoil, the Kurds are growing more confident, vowing to increase oil sales independent of the central government. (AP Photo)

  • Kurdish security forces prepare combat positions outside the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 19, 2014. As Sunni insurgents swept over a large chunk of northern Iraq and barreled toward Baghdad the past two weeks, Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga seized territory of their own, effectively expanding the Kurdish-run region into areas it has long claimed for itself. Most notably, they grabbed the oil center of Kirkuk. And in contrast to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which is in turmoil, the Kurds are growing more confident, vowing to increase oil sales independent of the central government. (AP Photo)

    Kurdish security forces prepare combat positions outside the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 19, 2014. As Sunni insurgents swept over a large chunk of northern Iraq and barreled toward Baghdad the past two weeks, Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga seized territory of their own, effectively expanding the Kurdish-run region into areas it has long claimed for itself. Most notably, they grabbed the oil center of Kirkuk. And in contrast to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which is in turmoil, the Kurds are growing more confident, vowing to increase oil sales independent of the central government. (AP Photo)

  • Kurdish security forces prepare combat positions outside the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 19, 2014. As Sunni insurgents swept over a large chunk of northern Iraq and barreled toward Baghdad the past two weeks, Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga seized territory of their own, effectively expanding the Kurdish-run region into areas it has long claimed for itself. Most notably, they grabbed the oil center of Kirkuk. And in contrast to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which is in turmoil, the Kurds are growing more confident, vowing to increase oil sales independent of the central government. (AP Photo)

    Kurdish security forces prepare combat positions outside the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 19, 2014. As Sunni insurgents swept over a large chunk of northern Iraq and barreled toward Baghdad the past two weeks, Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga seized territory of their own, effectively expanding the Kurdish-run region into areas it has long claimed for itself. Most notably, they grabbed the oil center of Kirkuk. And in contrast to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which is in turmoil, the Kurds are growing more confident, vowing to increase oil sales independent of the central government. (AP Photo)

  • Kurdish security forces prepare combat positions while a Kurdish flag flies outside the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 19, 2014. As Sunni insurgents swept over a large chunk of northern Iraq and barreled toward Baghdad the past two weeks, Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga seized territory of their own, effectively expanding the Kurdish-run region into areas it has long claimed for itself. Most notably, they grabbed the oil center of Kirkuk. And in contrast to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which is in turmoil, the Kurds are growing more confident, vowing to increase oil sales independent of the central government. (AP Photo)

    Kurdish security forces prepare combat positions while a Kurdish flag flies outside the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 19, 2014. As Sunni insurgents swept over a large chunk of northern Iraq and barreled toward Baghdad the past two weeks, Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga seized territory of their own, effectively expanding the Kurdish-run region into areas it has long claimed for itself. Most notably, they grabbed the oil center of Kirkuk. And in contrast to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which is in turmoil, the Kurds are growing more confident, vowing to increase oil sales independent of the central government. (AP Photo)

  • Kurdish security forces prepare combat positions while a Kurdish flag flies outside the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 19, 2014. As Sunni insurgents swept over a large chunk of northern Iraq and barreled toward Baghdad the past two weeks, Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga seized territory of their own, effectively expanding the Kurdish-run region into areas it has long claimed for itself. Most notably, they grabbed the oil center of Kirkuk. And in contrast to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which is in turmoil, the Kurds are growing more confident, vowing to increase oil sales independent of the central government. (AP Photo)
  • Kurdish security forces prepare combat positions outside the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 19, 2014. As Sunni insurgents swept over a large chunk of northern Iraq and barreled toward Baghdad the past two weeks, Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga seized territory of their own, effectively expanding the Kurdish-run region into areas it has long claimed for itself. Most notably, they grabbed the oil center of Kirkuk. And in contrast to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which is in turmoil, the Kurds are growing more confident, vowing to increase oil sales independent of the central government. (AP Photo)
  • Kurdish security forces prepare combat positions outside the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 19, 2014. As Sunni insurgents swept over a large chunk of northern Iraq and barreled toward Baghdad the past two weeks, Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga seized territory of their own, effectively expanding the Kurdish-run region into areas it has long claimed for itself. Most notably, they grabbed the oil center of Kirkuk. And in contrast to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which is in turmoil, the Kurds are growing more confident, vowing to increase oil sales independent of the central government. (AP Photo)
  • Kurdish security forces prepare combat positions outside the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 19, 2014. As Sunni insurgents swept over a large chunk of northern Iraq and barreled toward Baghdad the past two weeks, Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga seized territory of their own, effectively expanding the Kurdish-run region into areas it has long claimed for itself. Most notably, they grabbed the oil center of Kirkuk. And in contrast to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which is in turmoil, the Kurds are growing more confident, vowing to increase oil sales independent of the central government. (AP Photo)
  • Kurdish security forces prepare combat positions while a Kurdish flag flies outside the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, June 19, 2014. As Sunni insurgents swept over a large chunk of northern Iraq and barreled toward Baghdad the past two weeks, Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga seized territory of their own, effectively expanding the Kurdish-run region into areas it has long claimed for itself. Most notably, they grabbed the oil center of Kirkuk. And in contrast to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which is in turmoil, the Kurds are growing more confident, vowing to increase oil sales independent of the central government. (AP Photo)

Among rolling wheat fields with machine-gun fire rattling in the distance, Kurdish fighters patrol the new frontier of their autonomous region of northern Iraq, dozens of miles from their official border. In front of them are Islamic militants, behind them is the Kurds’ newly captured prize, stretches of oil-rich territory.

In Iraq’s chaos, the Kurds are emerging as significant winners – and their victories are fueling sentiment among their population to declare outright independence.

As Sunni insurgents swept over a large chunk of northern Iraq and barreled toward Baghdad the past two weeks, Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga seized territory of their own, effectively expanding the Kurdish-run region into areas it has long claimed. Most notably, they grabbed the oil center of Kirkuk. And in contrast to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which is in turmoil, the Kurds are growing more confident, vowing to increase oil sales independent of the central government.

The gains have also brought the Kurds challenges barely imaginable just days ago. They must defend a new, 620-mile frontier against Sunni insurgents, led by an al-Qaida breakaway group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Some 300,000 Iraqis who fled the insurgent advance have flooded into Kurdish areas, an extra burden to an already cash-strapped autonomy government.

And the Kurds risk a backlash. In Kirkuk, Sunni Arabs and ethnic Turkmens – who have long opposed Kurdish claims over the city – threaten a revolt if the Kurds don’t share administration of the city and any oil revenue.

Still, the sense of exuberance is palpable among Kurds, who make up 20 percent of Iraq’s mostly Arab population.

“Now that the peshmerga took back our disputed areas, we should have our own country. We deserve it,” said Khaled Ismail in the Kurdish area of Khazer.

The 19-year-old student wants independence so Kurdistan can sell its own oil and have the status statehood brings like a passport, representation internationally – and a national soccer team. “If we had a Kurdish team in the World Cup, it would be great,” he said.

Declaring independence – and formally fragmenting Iraq – is not easy. The United States and neighboring Turkey oppose Kurdish independence. And the Kurds can expect constant clashes not just with insurgents but with Iraqi forces as well if they unilaterally break away and claim the areas they grabbed, said Kurdish analyst Hiwa Osman. “If the Kurds want true independence, (there) has to be a treaty,” he said.

Given that resistance, the Kurdish government is pressing for even greater powers of autonomy but not full independence. The Kurds’ territorial grab is substantial. The recognized Kurdish autonomous region – defined as three northern provinces – effectively expanded by 40 percent, estimated Gareth Stansfield, an expert on Kurdish affairs.

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