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The Syria conflict and the fight against ISIS in Iraq have raised the possibility of major changes for Kurds in the region. The conflicts have demonstrated the effectiveness of Kurdish fighters, and these have been one of the biggest recipients of Western, including UK, aid, training and equipment.

Kurds in Syria and Iraq are in very different circumstances, however, and Kurds should not be seen as a homogeneous unit. Turkish, Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi Kurds speak dialects that are significantly different and Turkish/Syrian Kurds are not closely aligned with Iraqi Kurds, who have a better relationship with the Turkish Government.

Iraqi Kurds have lived in an autonomous region since the early 1990s, although that autonomy was strengthened and codified in the 2005 Iraqi constitution after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Saddam was concerned about the number of Kurds in cities near oilfields and their possible disloyalty to Iraq. In Kirkuk, particularly, he expelled some 120,000 Kurds and other non-Arabs to cement Arab Iraqi control. So the area officially controlled by the Kurdish Regional Government is smaller than that which the Kurds consider their historic territory.

The instability in Iraq following the ISIS/Daesh ‘surge’ in summer 2014, combined with the effective role of the Kurdish Peshmerga in fighting against ISIS, has allowed Iraqi Kurds to take control of a slice of territory outside the official Kurdish Autonomous Region, including Kirkuk. The battle for Mosul, in which the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga have a big role, may offer the opportunity to hold more territory.

Newspaper reports suggest that some of this territory (particularly those areas that are not traditionally majority-Kurdish) could be used as a bargaining chip to gain independence from Iraq. Mosul itself is traditionally a mixed Arab/Kurdish/Assyrian city. Kurdish leaders hope that the Trump Administration will be open to supporting full independence from Baghdad.

While the strategic picture for Iraqi Kurds might appear promising, domestic politics are more troubled. The KRG area is itself strongly divided between the areas dominated by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdish Democratic Party. Massoud Barzani has been leader of the KDP since 1979 and Kurdish President since 2005; elections have been put off. The parliament does not function. There has been a string of assassinations and foiled terrorist attacks. An independence referendum is planned for September 2017, but one analyst suggests that such internal instability threatens the plans for statehood after the defeat of ISIS.

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