The big players in Iraq are surprised and deeply alarmed by the lightning gains achieved over the past week by the Sunni militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

In Baghdad, the Shiite-dominated government of Nuri al-Maliki is on its heels, its soldiers led passively to the slaughter in the desert, and its patrons in Iran sending troops across the border to help prop it up. The United States, which expended billions of dollars and thousands of lives building up the Iraqi state and training the crumbling Iraqi army, finds itself mulling military action two weeks after President Barack Obama ridiculed those who say “that every problem has a military solution.”

But for the Kurds, rulers of Iraq’s semi-autonomous northern region, the Iraqi army’s retreat offers new opportunity.

The most significant gain they have made so far is to take full control of the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk, after rolling in last Thursday with their Peshmerga forces.

Kurds see Kirkuk as an integral part of their historic homeland, their “Jerusalem,” and believe it should be under their authority. A historically ethnically mixed city of Turkomen, Assyrians, Arabs, and Kurds within a heavily Kurdish province, Kirkuk’s demographics were changed drastically by Saddam Hussein’s Arabization campaign, during which he drove out of 100,000 Kurds.

A referendum on Kirkuk’s future, mandated by the 2005 Iraqi constitution, has been delayed indefinitely by Baghdad. Thus, the Kurds have decided to solve their biggest outstanding dispute — and there are many — with the central government themselves, by taking control of the city.

With the Kurdistan Regional Government in control of all the areas under dispute between Baghdad and the KRG capital Erbil, the Kurds’ position has improved drastically. According to some reports, Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani ordered the Peshmerga to prepare for permanent control of the city.

Keeping Kirkuk “means moving forward an extra mile toward independence,” said Ofra Bengio, an expert on Iraq at Tel Aviv University. “This means further escalation with Baghdad, which, however, seems incapable to stop the advancement of the Kurds.”

Kurdish PM Nechirvan Barzani (photo credit: US Department of Defense)

Kurdish PM Nechirvan Barzani (photo credit: US Department of Defense)

And who would take the city from them? The United States and the Iraqi central government have much bigger problems on their hands; and for ISIL, fighting the Peshmerga forces would be an unnecessary, perhaps fatal, diversion from the campaign against Iraq’s Shiites.

Still, there is always an outside chance that in the bloody ring that Iraq has become, the Peshmerga could find itself in a serious fight with the Islamists. “The Kurds stated that they do not want to open a front against ISIL, but if the latter does there is no doubt that such a clash might occur,” Bengio noted.

Kurdish media reported that Peshmerga forces have already battled ISIL militants, in the town of Jalula last week, driving the Islamist fighters out while losing two of their own. In addition, Kurdish news channel Rudaw reported Sunday that ISIL was sending messages to the Peshmerga through civilians passing through checkpoints, asking the Kurds to refrain from attacking.

A video posted to YouTube showed a group of Kurdish ISIL fighters addressing the Kurdish people in their own language, said Rebaz Ali, a Kurdish journalist based in the United States. They promised to liberate the Kurds one day from the parties currently controlling the region.

In any event, the Peshmerga are not about to pursue ISIL fighters beyond disputed territories. “Kurds are not ready to fight against ISIL in support of Maliki unless they have some assurance from his side that he’s going to resolve the issues with them,” said Ali.

Granting Iraq to Iran on a silver plate

As Sunni militants advance, Iran sends troops in to back the US-supported government, and Kurds move closer to independence, what options remain for the United States?

First, Washington should give up the expectation that it can put the country back together again, emphasized Bengio: “Iraq as a unitary state has gone forever. In fact this artificial entity has never managed to become a cohesive and unified entity without the force of arms.”

She also placed significant blame on the Obama administration for the current turmoil in Iraq. “Not because it withdrew its forces from Iraq, as Maliki insisted that not one soldier should remain in Iraq after 2011 there, but because of the free hand which it gave him in the aftermath of the withdrawal to marginalize the Sunnis and antagonize a whole section of the population,” she said. “Their support of Maliki against the Kurds was another gross mistake.

“However, the worst was granting Iraq to Iran on a silver plate.”

Unless Obama takes decisive action now, including airstrikes, Iran could gain significantly if it manages to save the Maliki government, becoming the decisive player in the country at the expense of the US. If that were to happen, Tehran would hold sway from Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea through Syria and Lebanon.

But airstrikes alone are only one piece of the solution, Ali said, and the US must pressure Baghdad to enact policies designed to meet the needs of the Sunni population, now actively helping ISIL fighters. “It’s a Sunni uprising against the Shiite-dominated government,” said Ali. “Maliki’s sectarian war against the Sunnis has been brutal. We only see the ISIL fighters, but there are also tribal fighters, former Iraqi military officers and soldiers.”

Moreover, there is a stable, pro-Western force in the country, the Kurds, and Washington is doing itself no favors by not backing them more firmly in their disputes with Baghdad and neighboring countries.

But there is little chance the US will back Kurdish independence. Washington, after investing so much blood and treasure into keeping the Iraqi state together after Saddam’s downfall, is not interested in seeing it fracture along ethnic lines. The Americans “want to keep the political map of the region as it is,” noted Salam Saadi, editor of Rudaw.

If the US insists on keeping out of the Iraqi mess, there is not much left for it to do but hope Iran can stem the ISIL advance while moving Iraq in a direction that will meet American interests — not an especially good bet.