ARBIL Iraq (Reuters) - Poets wrote songs about it for generations. Guerrilla fighters holed up in the mountains trained for it for decades. But in the end, when a Kurdish army finally took control of Kirkuk, they realized the dream of their forefathers within hours, without having to fire a shot.
The collapse of Baghdad’s control of northern Iraq in the face of an onslaught by Sunni insurgents has allowed Kurds to take the historic capital they regard as their Jerusalem, and suddenly put them closer than ever to their immortal goal: an independent state of their own.
After Sunni insurgents from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant seized Iraq’s biggest northern city Mosul and rampaged towards the capital Baghdad, Kurdish fighters wasted no time in mobilizing.
They seized full control of Kirkuk - and tracts of land besides. In all, they expanded the territory they control by as much as 40 percent, without having to fight a single battle.
The new territory includes vast oil deposits the Kurdish people regard as their national birthright and foundation for the prosperity of a future independent homeland.
Kurds plundered bases deserted by the Iraqi army in Kirkuk, making off with everything from guns to air-conditioning units, armored vehicles and mattresses in a frenzy reminiscent of the scenes that followed the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
For now, Kurdish officials are still weighing their options for next steps, but they have made clear that the settlement that held Iraq together as a state has been torn up.
“We have entered a new era in Iraq that is completely different than before Mosul,” Fuad Hussein, chief of staff to Kurdish regional President Masoud Barzani, told Reuters. “We will see how we are going to deal with this new Iraq.”
The 30 million Kurds - the world’s largest stateless nation, divided between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey - have sought a state of their own since the mapmakers of the modern Middle East denied them one last century.
Since Saddam’s fall, Iraq’s 4 million Kurds have come the closest: ruling themselves in a prosperous and comparatively peaceful autonomous region of three remote mountainous provinces under a settlement that awards them a fixed 17 percent of Iraq’s total oil wealth, sent from Baghdad.
That has provided enough of a windfall to turn the regional capital Arbil into a boomtown, even as Baghdad remained an unreconstructed war zone strewn with rubbish, barbed wire and concrete blast walls.
Kurds have served since Saddam’s fall as Iraq’s figurehead president and as foreign minister, and Kurdish political parties have acted as kingmakers in Baghdad, helping to give the Shi’ite-led government an appearance of inclusivity.
But disputes remained unresolved over the authority to issue oil exploration rights, and over the territorial boundaries of the autonomous region - demarcated between government troops and Kurdish forces by an often tense “green line”.
Kurds argued that much of the disputed territory, including Kirkuk itself, had been illegally “Arabised” in ethnic cleansing campaigns by Saddam, who pushed out Kurds and settled Arabs, to ensure control over the land and the oil beneath it.
Now, the government troops are gone, and the Kurdish forces, known as peshmerga, or “those who confront death”, have effectively resolved the main disputes in the Kurds’ favour.
“All these areas are going to be incorporated into the region,” said Jabbar Yawar, Secretary General of the Kurdish Ministry of Peshmerga. “Currently our border is with ISIL, it is not with the Iraqi government”.
The priority for now, Kurdish officials say, is to insulate the region from the violent fallout in the rest of Iraq.
Officials in Kurdistan say they anticipated this week’s assault by ISIL fighters as long as a year ago, and warned Baghdad to no avail.
They built up their own defenses by creating a security belt stretching more than 1,000 km (600 miles) from the Iranian border all the way to Syria - skirting around Mosul, a city of 2 million people they appear to have no intention of fighting for.
The Kurds “don’t particularly care about Mosul,” said a former U.S. official in Iraq. “They are going to expand further below the green line, and a lot of it is going to be oil-related territory.”
In the days after Mosul fell, some in Baghdad suggested the peshmerga could come to the Iraqi government’s aid and retake the city, an hour’s drive from Arbil, on Baghdad’s behalf.
The Kurds say they received no formal request for help from in Baghdad. But even if Baghdad were to ask, it no longer has much to offer the Kurds in return for the favour, since the Kurds have already taken prizes like Kirkuk for themselves.
Emma Sky, a former political advisor to the U.S. military in Iraq, said some of Iraq’s Kurdish leaders may have been waiting all along for the governing system in Baghdad to fall apart, helping to keep Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in power while betting that Iraq would crumble around him.
“On the Kurd side, some leaders calculated that Kurdish independence would come out of the collapse of Iraq - and that Maliki was the person most likely to destroy Iraq. For them, independence is so close,” she said.
However, that also creates a risk that the Kurds could find themselves at war with ISIL - dragging them into the sort of violence they have so far avoided for more than a decade.
The disputed areas, including Kirkuk itself, are still home to many Sunni Arabs. Some may accept Kurdish rule if it brings piece, but some may look to ISIL for support that the Iraqi army failed to give.
“The risk, of course, is that ISIL presents itself as the defender of the Sunnis in the (disputed areas) - and starts a fight with Kurds, marking the start of Arab-Kurd war,” said Sky.
But for Kurdish officials, the risk of a new conflict with the insurgents was clearly worth taking.
“Everyone is worried, but this is a big chance for us,” said a source in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) on condition of anonymity. “ISIL gave us in two weeks what Maliki has not given us in eight years.”
Additional reporting by Ned Parker; Editing by Peter Graff