WASHINGTON (AP) — Facing an Iraq that is being ripped apart by sectarian violence and a divisive government, leaders of the country’s Kurdish region said Thursday they now believe they have a better chance than ever to break away and create an independent nation.
The semi-autonomous Kurdish region in Iraq’s north has for years threatened to separate from the rest of the country, and it has feuded with both the Shiite-led government in Baghdad over oil revenues and the Sunni tribes who claim authority over territory the Kurds believe is theirs.
Now, with Baghdad battling a bloody Sunni insurgency, Kurdish officials say Iraq is already split along sectarian and ethnic lines.
“Iraq is divided. We have got a new reality,” Fuad Hussein, the chief of staff to Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani, told reporters Thursday. He was in Washington to update senior Obama administration officials on Kurdish aspirations for “self-determination” — the region’s term for breaking away from the central government in Baghdad.
Hussein said the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, had for years pushed divisive policies that made Iraq’s current unrest inevitable. But he said it became clear in early June, after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant took over the northern Sunni hold of Mosul, that the country was breaking into three distinct parts.
“We are heading toward exercising self-determination,” Hussein said. “The process has already started.”
Earlier Tuesday, in the Kurdish capital of Irbil, Barzani asked Kurdish lawmakers during a closed-door session to begin working on a referendum to allow Iraqi Kurds to vote for independence.
The Obama administration maintains that Iraq must remain united if it is to overcome the strife that killed more than 2,400 people last month and threatens to upend its government.
Hussein was to meet Thursday with White House officials and discussed the issue a day earlier with Secretary of State John Kerry.
“A united Iraq is a stronger Iraq,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday. She said the country’s leaders should focus on the insurgency instead of drawing new borders, “and we should not give an opening to a horrific terrorist group by being divided at this critical moment.”
Hussein left open the possibility that, with a new leader in Baghdad, Kurdish officials would settle for being part of a confederation in Iraq that would give the region even more autonomy, if not declare full independence.
Al-Maliki’s political party won the most votes in national elections in April. But he has been besieged by growing demands to step aside and let the Iraqi parliament select a new prime minister. So far, he has shown no sign of stepping down.
Hussein said Kurdish security forces have moved into disputed lands that Sunni tribes also consider theirs, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. He said that the territory, which cuts a large northern swath stretching Iran to Syria, will be included in the Kurdish vote for independence.
Until recently, It was believed that simmering tensions between Kurds and Sunni Arabs over ownership of the disputed land would spark a civil war in Iraq. That rivalry largely has been shelved in the face of the new insurgent surge. But it’s unlikely that many Sunni tribes will give up the land in the long run.