As Iraq's Kurds eye statehood, a border takes shape


The sand berms and trenches that snake across northern Iraq stretch toward Syria, some accompanied by newly paved roads lit by street lamps and sprawling checkpoints decked with Kurdish flags. The fighters here insist it isn't the border of a newly independent state – but in the chaos of Iraq that could change.

Construction began in 2014, when this marked the front line between U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, known as the peshmerga and the Islamic State group, which had swept across northern Iraq that summer, routing the army and threatening the Kurdish autonomous region.

Since then, a more permanent boundary has taken shape as Kurdish aspirations for outright independence have grown. The frontier could mark the fault-line of a new conflict in Iraq once the extremists are defeated. A similar process is underway in Syria, where Syrian Kurdish forces have seized large swathes of land from IS.

"It was our front line, now it's our border and we will stay forever," said peshmerga commander and business magnate Sirwan Barzani. He's among a growing number of Kurdish leaders, including his uncle, the Kurdish region's President Massoud Barzani, who say that lands taken from IS will remain in Kurdish hands.

The Kurds have been at loggerheads with the Baghdad government over the so-called disputed territories – lands stretching across northern and eastern Iraq – since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Article 140 of the Iraqi constitution says their fate should be decided by a referendum, but such a vote has yet to be held and as the Iraqi army collapsed in 2014, the Kurds moved in.

They took control of the long-disputed northern city of Kirkuk that summer, ostensibly to protect it from IS. Since then, with the aid of U.S.-led airstrikes, the Kurds have taken territory equivalent to 50 percent of their recognised autonomous region.

"After the defeat of IS, Sunnis will dispute the Kurdish claims, the Shiites in Baghdad will dispute both the Sunni claims and the Kurdish claims and the possibility of conflict there is real," said Anwar Anaid, dean of social sciences at the University of Kurdistan Hewler. "What happens on the ground depends on the circumstances. There is a real Kurdish wish to go for independence."

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