On Friday, July 11, as reported at the Kurdish English-language news portal Rudaw [Events], combat fighters representing the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq, known as Peshmerga, occupied oil fields in Hassan and Makhmour, near the ethnically-mixed city of Kirkuk that the KRG occupied in mid-June. Rudaw asserted the KRG’s claim to the oil fields based on investment in and construction of the facilities by the regional authority. But the Kurdish source also argued it was necessary to protect the assets from the Baghdad government of prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, which has challenged the right of the Kurds to extract and sell their oil for their own benefit.
Maliki outraged the KRG by alleging on July 9 that Erbil, the KRG capital, was a “headquarters” for the terrorists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), now calling itself simply “the Islamic State,” as well as Ba’ath party supporters of the late Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda. Baghdad prohibited air cargo flights into Erbil and the Kurdish city of Suleymaniya the following day after Kurdish ministers boycotted a cabinet meeting. KRG leaders called on Maliki to resign and, in retaliation, barred air traffic from the KRG to the Iraqi capital.
Iraqi Kurdistan is pressed both by the aggression of the ISIS and the tantrums of Maliki. The KRG said its takeover of Kirkuk rescued the city from ISIS. Interviewed by the pan-Arabic newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat [The Middle East] on July 10, Kurdish advocate Moayad Tayeb insisted, “ISIS is not in Erbil but . . . [is approaching] Baghdad, and if [Maliki] wants to fight and expel it, it is but a stone’s throw away from him.” Further, the KRG has become a refuge for Sunni and Shia Muslim refugees from the terrorist incursion, including Arabs and Turkmens from Mosul, now held by ISIS.
The fragility of the Iraq national government has impelled KRG president Massoud Barzani to announce a referendum in the “disputed territories” with large Kurdish communities, including Kirkuk, in addition to an eventual plebiscite on independence for Iraqi Kurdistan.
As a Shia politician, Maliki may seek, perhaps under Iranian pressure, to identify all Sunnis—including ISIS, which aims to establish an ultra-Wahhabi “caliphate,” non-radical Sunni opponents of the Maliki regime, and the majority of Kurds—as antagonists. But the KRG and Kurds in general are non-sectarian, comprising a Sunni majority, a Shia minority, and, in Turkey, the Shia-oriented, heterodox Alevi sect.
If most Iraqi Kurds are Sunnis, there ranks also include spiritual Sufis, who, like Shia Muslims, are considered apostates and heretics, marked for death by ISIS. The website of the “Islamic State” has posted images of the destruction of Sufi shrines and Shia meeting houses in the area of Iraq it has invaded.