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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Iraqi Kurds Gain As Sunni Militants Battle Shiite-Led Baghdad

Kurds in Iraq’s north already have a lot of autonomy from Baghdad and are looking to make more gains as Sunni militants press the country’s Shiite-led government.

Financial Times reporter Erika Solomon joins Here & Now’s Robin Young from Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdish region.


  • Erika Solomon, Middle East-based journalist, writing for the Financial Times. She tweets @ErikaSolomon.



And we've been following the advance of Sunni militants on the Shiite-led government in Baghdad. But a third group, the Kurds, has also been active. Last week, Kurdish forces, known as the Peshmerga, moved into Kirkuk, which was abandoned by Iraqi troops who fled ahead of the militants. And there are reports today that the Kurdish Peshmerga are now actively fighting against the Sunni militants to consolidate Kurdish control of various cities. Erika Solomon of the Financial Times is in Erbil. That's the capital of Iraq's Kurdish region. She was driving there and kindly pulled over to talk to us via Skype. So thank you, Erika. And tell us about Erbil - smack between fighting in Syria next door and fighting in other Iraqi cities just below. So what's the sense in Erbil?

ERIKA SOLOMON: Thanks, Robin. The sense in Erbil is a mix of optimism and anxiety. We spoke to politicians yesterday who said that they had an agreement with the Baghdad government - that they would take control of all the areas called disputed areas. Those are areas that both the Kurds and Baghdad lay a claim to as part of their territory because Baghdad is so busy fighting with Sunni insurgents right now that it basically cut across, you know, what's considered the Sunni center of the country. They've given over disputed areas between them and the Kurds for the Peshmerga, the Kurdish forces, to look after. And the Kurdish politicians we spoke to actually admitted that this is basically supposed to be a temporary agreement. But as one put it to me, we don't see this as temporary. We have no intention of leaving.

YOUNG: Well, Erika, remind us. Where do the Kurds stand when it comes to these militants? The Kurds are not Arabic as other Iraqis are. But they are Sunni. So who do the Kurds side with? Are they siding with the Sunni militants?

SOLOMON: I've not seen evidence of fighting on the sides of the militants among the Kurds. But what I can say is that for a long time Iraq's central Baghdad government, which is the Shiite government, has accused the Kurds of trying to plot with the Sunni minority to try and divide the country because the Kurds obviously have ambitions, greater autonomy, and some would say independence.

YOUNG: Well, meanwhile, we're reading about refugees flowing into Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region, from both Iraq now and Syria. That's been ongoing. It's said to be this sort of island of calm. People in Erbil feel they're untouchable by this militant movement.

SOLOMON: I don't think any group can be assured that it's untouchable. This group is ISIS, as a lot of us call it. Their goal is to create an Islamic state and if right now that means not attacking the Kurds, they will do it. And if they feel later that they're in a position strong enough to attack that other group, they will. And the Kurds are very aware of this. So that's why I say that it's a mix of feeling like they're gaining some strength in their negotiating position with Baghdad, but also realizing that there are no guarantees that they won't become victims later on.

YOUNG: Are the Kurds possibly looking at the birth of a nation for them?

SOLOMON: Yes. I mean, no one wants to say it so directly. They don't want to be seen as sort of having some sense of Schadenfreude, of course. But I think they do feel like at the very least Baghdad will need to rely on them more for security reasons and at the minimum give them greater autonomy - things like control over their budget. The feeling on the street is just that. They actually can become a state. So while politicians say we don't know what's going to happen - of course we're not working in any way toward separation - their people are saying go for it.

YOUNG: Erika Solomon is with the Financial Times in Erbil. That's the capital of Iraq's Kurdish region. Erika, thank you so much. Be safe and thank you for speaking with us.

SOLOMON: Thank you. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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