Chaos In Iraq Might Give Kurds A Better Chance Of Independence

As Iraq continues to fracture, the Kurdish minority could seize the moment to push for greater autonomy. Columbia University's David Phillips tells NPR's Tamara Keith about the potential opportunity.

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TAMARA KEITH, HOST:

In Iraq this week, the Sunni extremist group ISIS changed its name to the Islamic State and announced plans to rule the territory it has carved out of Iraq and Syria. Also this week, the Iraqi Parliament tried and failed to form a national unity government that could save the country from collapse. They say they'll try again. Iraq's Kurds are using this as an opportunity to seek greater autonomy. And the Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani said they would hold an independence referendum within months.

David Phillips is director of the Program on Peace-Building and Human Rights at Columbia University. He thinks this could be an important opportunity for Kurds in Iraq. I asked him what greater autonomy would look like.

DAVID PHILLIPS: They recently took control of the city of Kirkuk and want to include Kirkuk, which they refer to as their Jerusalem, in an entity called Iraqi Kurdistan. But I don't think Iraqi Kurds are going to be satisfied being a part of a dysfunctional Iraqi State. And Iraqi Kurds are going to demand a new reality. And for them, that's not greater autonomy, that's going to mean independence.

KEITH: So that's to say that even if there's a new government that is more inclusive, as the White House has been calling for, and perhaps gets rid of the widely controversial Prime Minister Maliki, that wouldn't be enough, you think?

PHILLIPS: So this idea of a more inclusive government is a pipe dream. The Sunni Arab members of Parliament in Baghdad don't represent their constituents because they can't go back or they'd be beheaded. The governor of Nineveh Province from Mosul is now a refugee in Iraqi Kurdistan. And the speaker of the parliament has moved his family out of Iraq and they all live in Jordan. So why do the Kurds want to be a part of a dysfunctional state when they are pro-Western, pro-American, and they have huge oil reserves and a new strategic relationship with Turkey? They're going to make a dash for independence, ultimately with support from Israel, the United States and Turkey.

KEITH: Though that support isn't entirely clear right now.

PHILLIPS: That support is not forthcoming right now. But Iraq is going to continue to disintegrate. And at some point, you know, we need a reality-based policy that will require the U.S. to turn to the Iraqi Kurds as an ally in the region.

KEITH: Though today, the Obama administration and many others are continuing to push for this idea of a unity government.

PHILLIPS: So they will go along with the negotiations, but the reality is that the Obama administration is using talking points from 2005. You know, they haven't adapted to the new conditions in Iraq. They're still trying to patch together a unity government when there is no government.

I was in Washington the other day and met with U.S. officials who are starting to ask the question, why not an independent Iraqi Kurdistan? The bureaucratics in Washington are not set up for a dramatic shift in approach. And the Obama administration has itself been dramatically flat-footed in responding to these events. But I do think that ultimately the U.S. is going to act in its national interests. And its national interest is not going to be trying to promote a unity government or preserve and protect the state of Iraq, it's going to be working with our friends. And our only friends in the region are the Iraqi Kurds.

KEITH: You talk about these things happening eventually. Let's talk timeline here.

PHILLIPS: So you can reach a tipping point at any moment, or this could be a protracted battle. Right now, ISIS controls 40 percent of Iraq, and there are daily skirmishes that are going on between Kurdish Peshmerga, their militia, which literally means those who stand before death, and ISIS jihadis.

ISIS also has its eyes set on Baghdad. If they make a move on Samarra, which is the site of the golden dome shrine and one of the Shiite holy places, than that's going to provoke a reaction from Iran. Iranian drones and members of the Quds Force are already on the ground. If ISIS moves on Samarra, then the Iranian armed forces will probably be provoked to get involved. And at that point, all bets are off. So the tipping point can happen any day. Or this kind of grinding civil conflict can go on for an extended period, much like the grinding civil war that exists today in Syria.

KEITH: David Phillips, he's director of the Program on Peace-Building and Human Rights at Columbia University and author of the forthcoming book "The Kurdish Spring: A New Map For The Middle East." Great talking to you.

PHILLIPS: Thank you.

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