As clash with ISIL looms, Kurds look to capitalize on Iraq unrest

President Massoud Barzani hints independence from Iraq might be impending, setting up possible showdown with Sunni militants

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Kurdish president Massoud Barzani speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Salah al-Din resort, north of Baghdad, Iraq, April 25, 2012. (photo credit: Khalid Mohammed/AP)
Kurdish president Massoud Barzani speaks during an interview with the Associated Press in Salah al-Din resort, north of Baghdad, Iraq, April 25, 2012. (photo credit: Khalid Mohammed/AP)

Amid Iraq’s descent into renewed sectarian bloodshed, the president of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region gave the strongest indication yet that full Kurdish independence was a real possibility.

“It is the time now,” Massoud Barzani told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an interview to air Monday. “The time is here for the Kurdistan people to determine their future and the decision of the people is what we are going to uphold.”

“During the last 10 years, we did everything in our ability, we made every effort, and we showed all flexibility in order to build a new, democratic Iraq,” Barzani said. “But unfortunately, the experience has not been successful the way that it should have.”

“And that’s why I believe that after the recent events in Iraq, it has been proven that the Kurdish people should se​ize the opportunity now – the Kurdistan people should now determine their future.”

The Kurds have significantly improved their position since Islamist terrorists swept through northwestern Iraq, moving their forces into disputed areas, including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

In addition, Reuters reported that a tanker carrying crude oil from a new pipeline in Kurdistan delivered its cargo to Israel early Saturday, as part of a first of its kind interaction between representatives of the autonomous ethnic minority and Israeli companies. Officials in Baghdad denounced the move.

Barzani’s statement comes as a significant clash between Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) looks increasingly inevitable. On Sunday, ISIL released photographs of what it said was the beheading of two prisoners in Peshmerga uniforms. ISIL claimed the two men were Peshmerga fighters captured last week, but the Kurdistan Regional Government denied that the victims were Peshmerga troops. A spokesman said that the images were meant to intimidate Kurdish fighters, and that the KRG holds ISIL prisoners and is looking into a swap.

Last week, Barzani also called on all retired fighters from the Kurdish Peshmerga forces to return to their former units.

Skirmishes between Peshmerga fighters and ISIS have become more common over the past week. Kurdish media reported that ISIL attacked Peshmerga forces over the weekend in the village of Sleman Beg near Tuz Khurmatoo. According to the Peshmerga spokesman, two Peshmerga fighters were killed and three wounded, and several ISIL fighters were killed in the raid.

A number of deadly clashes were reported last week.

ISIL seized Iraq’s second largest city Mosul and a swath of its north and center over the past 10 days, prompting talk of possible cooperation between Washington and Tehran to help stop the insurgency.

A top Iranian official said on Wednesday that Tehran could consider working with the United States over the crisis in Iraq if talks on its nuclear program are successful.

AFP contributed to this story.

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