Iraq's Kurdish region appears to be making a determined drive toward independence as Baghdad reels from a Sunni Islamist takeover of much of the country's north.
But with neighboring states and major powers calling for Iraq to remain united, the Kurdish talk could be aimed less at breaking free than at gaining additional territory and rights within the country amid its current crisis.
In recent weeks, Kurdish leader Masud Barzani has kept up a barrage of public statements suggesting the Kurdish regional government (KRG) is now ready to move swiftly toward statehood.
He said late last month that Iraq was falling apart and was already effectively partitioned following the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant's (ISIL) seizure of Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, and drive to the outskirts of Baghdad.
On June 15, he held separate talks with Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul in Ankara, where he discussed his plan for holding an independence referendum and asked for Turkish support for his independence plans. Ankara reportedly urged Iraqi unity, instead.
All the talk of independence has gone down well in the Kurdish autonomous region, where the parliament on July 3 agreed to set up a committee to create an election commission for the poll and recommend a date.
And the mood for statehood in the Kurdish region runs high, as evidenced by the 2.5 million hits garnered by a video by Kurdish pop singer Helly Luv urging Kurds to "risk it all" for independence.
But many analysts say the real stakes in the drive are not statehood but a bid to force long-sought concessions from Baghdad. And that comes at a time when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki badly needs political and military support from Iraq's Kurds as the country faces its worst crisis since U.S. forces left at the end of 2011.
Think Globally, Act Locally
Wladimir Van Wilgenburg, a journalist for Al-Monitor and an analyst with the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation, says that even as Barzani calls for independence he has opened a second track aimed at pushing the Iraqi government to enlarge the boundaries of the Kurdish autonomous region to include the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.
Barzani has said he will hold a referendum in the Kirkuk region to ask the populace whether they want to be part of the autonomous Kurdish region or remain outside it. The proposed referendum comes in the wake of Kurdish forces taking control of Kirkuk and its surrounding region on July 11 as ISIL advanced in northern Iraq.
The Kirkuk referendum, separate from the independence referendum inside the autonomous region itself, would be aimed at bolstering Kurdish claims to the oil-rich city and other disputed areas in northern Iraq that the Kurds have long wanted to incorporate.
Van Wilgenburg says Barzani appears to have proposed the two referendums at the same time in order to strengthen his bargaining position. "It seems to me that these two referendums are meant as a way of pressuring the Iraqi government to basically allow the Kurds to sort of annex those disputed areas, including Kirkuk," he says. "I think that the independence referendum is the one which is more negotiable."
The Kirkuk referendum would revive long-dormant efforts in Iraq to finally settle the status of the disputed region through a plebiscite. The region's multiethnic population includes Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomans, all of whom claim the disputed areas as their own.
A plebiscite was originally planned by Baghdad as early as 2007 and was seen by Washington as essential for strengthening Iraq by finally settling the territorial disputes, which have sometimes led to armed conflicts. However, the plebiscite was repeatedly postponed amid political wrangling.
And there is more for Barzani to bargain for than just the disputed territories. "The main goal for the Kurds now is this referendum on the disputed territories and, moreover, they want Baghdad to allow them to export oil to Turkey independently," Van Wilgenburg says.
By incorporating Kirkuk and winning the right to export oil to Turkey, the KRG would not just strengthen its economic base but also free itself from economic pressure applied by Baghdad. Baghdad is currently withholding the 17 percent share of national oil revenues the regional government is supposed to receive amid disputes over the KRG's right to export oil. The KRG has responded by refusing to forward to Baghdad the proceeds of its oil sales to Turkey.
No Fast Road To Independence
But there are other reasons beyond Kirkuk and oil to regard Barzani's talk of independence as more of a ploy than an immediate drive toward declaring a new state.
One is the KRG's need for foreign support for any statehood declaration.
The international community wants Iraq to remain united, particularly as the extremist Islamic State (formerly ISIL) tries to carve a caliphate from Iraq and Syria. Only one world leader, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has publicly said he supports Kurdish statehood.
The main regional partner whose support the KRG would need is neighboring Turkey. But Ankara, too, has consistently called for Iraq to remain united. "Everything that comes out suggests that Ankara's preference on a number of levels is for Kurdistan to remain a part of Iraq and I am sure that this is the message that officials in Turkey would be giving," says James Ker-Lindsay, a regional expert at the London School of Economics.
Iraqi Kurdish leader Masud Barzani (left) meets with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on July 14.
Turkey no longer sees the autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region as the threat it once did, when Ankara feared that Kurdish self-rule across the border might dramatically worsen restiveness within its own Kurdish minority, which seeks greater rights. Instead, the KRG and Ankara have forged strong trade ties over the past decade and the KRG has become a partner in Ankara's peace process with the armed Turkish-Kurd PKK.
But while Ker-Lindsay says the positive relations with Iraq's Kurds mean Ankara could acquiesce to its declaring independence if Iraq fell into civil war and collapsed, it remains "quite clear this isn't the first choice Turkey would have."
Another disincentive for the KRG to declare statehood immediately is that to be fully independent requires having good relations with more than just one bordering state. "Even if one country recognizes you -- in this case let's say it is Turkey, although it's not that the Turks recognize you it is just that they accede to the inevitable -- then you are completely dependent on that one country's whims," says Henri Barkey, a professor of international relations at Lehigh University in the United States.
"Something can happen and then the Turks can turn off the tap, so you become excessively dependent on one country and that is really not independence," he notes.
The landlocked Iraqi Kurdish region is surrounded by Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Its major routes to world markets today are through Turkey and Iraq, plus some cross-border trade with Iran. Syria, engulfed in a civil war, is impassable.