MULA ABDULA, Iraq (AP) — Among rolling wheat fields with machine-gun fire rattling in the distance, Kurdish fighters patrol the new frontier of their autonomous region of northern Iraq, dozens of miles from their official border. In front of them are Islamic militants; behind them is the Kurds’ newly captured prize, stretches of oil-rich territory.
In Iraq’s chaos, the Kurds are emerging as significant winners — and their victories are fueling sentiment among their population to declare outright independence.
As Sunni insurgents swept over a large chunk of northern Iraq and barreled toward Baghdad the past two weeks, Kurdish fighters known as peshmerga seized territory of their own, effectively expanding the Kurdish-run region into areas it has long claimed. Most notably, they grabbed the oil center of Kirkuk. And in contrast to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad, which is in turmoil, the Kurds are growing more confident, vowing to increase oil sales independent of the central government.
The gains have also brought the Kurds challenges barely imaginable just days ago. They must defend a new, 620-mile frontier against Sunni insurgents, led by an al-Qaida breakaway group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Some 300,000 Iraqis who fled the insurgent advance have flooded into Kurdish areas, an extra burden to an already cash-strapped autonomy government.
And the Kurds risk a backlash. In Kirkuk, Sunni Arabs and ethnic Turkmens — who have long opposed Kurdish claims over the city — threaten a revolt if the Kurds don’t share administration of the city and any oil revenues.
Still, the sense of exuberance is palpable among Kurds, who make up 20 percent of Iraq’s mostly Arab population.
“Now that the peshmerga took back our disputed areas, we should have our own country. We deserve it,” said Khaled Ismail in the Kurdish area of Khazer.