Kurdish warlords plot independence course to fill the ISIS vacuum, The Economist/The Australian, 25/9/17:
"As the jihadists of the so-called Islamic State retreat, the Arab and Kurdish forces allied against it in Iraq are turning their arms towards each other.
"Rather than celebrate victory, Masoud Barzani, the President of Iraqi Kurdistan, called a referendum on independence for today, not just in his constitutionally recognised autonomous zone but in the vast tracts that his forces seized from Islamic State. Protesting against this threat to Iraq's integrity, Iraq's Prime Minster Haider al-Abadi gathered his commanders at Makhmour, opposite the Kurdish front lines. If the referendum went ahead, Kurdistan 'might disappear', he warned. Hoping to prevent to prevent their allies from sparring, Western mediators have stepped in. But yesterday Barzani remained committed to his referendum.
"Kurdistan is far from ready for statehood. The government is steeped in debt; its coffers are empty. The Peshmerga, its vaunted fighting force, is split among family-led factions.
"Barzani, for his part, has made a mockery of the political system. In 2015 he shut parliament after it tried to limit his powers and questioned how he spends oil revenues. Instead of dealing with the region's ills ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections planned for November, he has used the referendum to distract the public and rouse nationalist fervour. Rallies across Kurdistan feature fireworks and fiery rhetoric. 'Whatever it takes (to gain independence),' says a normally cool-headed official at a rally. A toll of half a million dead, he suggests, could be acceptable.
"Neighbours around the enclave are uniting against the Kurds. Iraqi politicians speak of closing its airspace. Fearing that the referendum will stir separatists sentiments among their own Kurds, Turkey and Iran have mulled closing their borders with Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey is conducting military exercises on the frontier. It could turn off the tap of the territory's only pipeline, blocking its oil exports. Western powers are also threatening to withhold aid to Kurdistan if Barzani rejects their proposals.They are offering Barzani and Abadi a room in the US embassy to negotiate a deal under their auspices. Abadi might endorse a process that buys him time. Barzani is still hoping for a path to independence.
"Many Kurds, for now at least, would prefer their leaders focus on improving Kurdistan rather than seceding. Even in the Kurdish capital, Irbil, the referendum has left many nonplussed. As the threat of a siege mounts - Kurdistan imports almost everything - people are stockpiling basics. Flights out of Irbil are packed. But many are feeling squeezed financially. The referendum is 'a luxury only the rich like Barzani can afford,' complains a teacher, who moonlights as a taxi driver because of cuts to salaries. Beyond Barzani's strongholds the campaign for independence has begun belatedly, if at all. In a straw poll in the main market of Sulaymaniyah, in the east, your correspondent could not find one Kurd who said he would vote.
"In the Nineveh Plains, where an earthen wall splits the Arab- and Kurdish-ruled areas, other minorities view the referendum as an impossible loyalty test. 'Each side is forcing us to choose when we should just abstain,' says a priest at St Joseph's, a towering Chaldean church that serves displaced Christians in Irbil. Abadi is planning a conference for Christians to air their grievances at the end of the month. Barzani is urging priests not to go.
"The tensions are also affecting Kurds beyond Kurdistan. Under Saddam Hussein, Baghdad was Iraq's largest Kurdish city. Many Kurds have since drifted north, but hundreds still hold positions in the government and the army. Their loyalty has been questioned and jobs put at risk.
"If violence flares, Kirkuk may be where it starts. The fighting could spread quickly along the region's ethnic faultlines into Syria, where Arab and Kurdish forces are also competing to take land from Islamic State.
"Even if the referendum passes, Barzani is not obliged to declare independence. A deal might better serve his interests. Right now, he risks ignominy if the exuberance of statehood that he has stoked should dissipate, and his people flee a failed and besieged state. With an accord, he could boast of at least bringing evasive Iraqi officials to the table. He might yet win their agreement to restore the old subsidy for the Kurds that was cut when they began selling Kirkuk's plentiful oil independently. And he might add the Peshmerga to the Iraqi government's payroll, as was done for the Shia militias. He would thus alleviate Kurdish fears of being marginalised, having served their purpose in fighting Islamic State.
"Come the election in November, Western powers are likely to turn a blind eye if the ballot is again postponed. If so, Barzani could thus secure his position as Kurdistan's preeminent warlord, and prolong his one-man rule."