Iraqi Kurds Seize Islamic State-Held Land, Bolstering Leverage for Future

SULAYMANIYAH, Iraq—Iraqi Kurds have pushed forward with renewed vigor to retake land from Islamic State in recent weeks, territory that could be used as bargaining chips in future negotiations they are seeking to achieve more autonomy or even independence.

Iraqi territory under Kurdish control has expanded by about 50% in the past two years. Since last month, Kurdish Peshmerga forces took control of a number of villages near Mosul and some strategic access points leading into the city. The offensive came as Iraqi forces and their allies gear up for a massive operation in coming weeks to retake the extremist group’s last stronghold in the country.

The maneuvering has angered Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, who has warned the Kurds not to push further into Mosul on their own, saying the city’s Sunni Arab majority population could resist a Kurdish incursion. The U.S., though, has stressed that its priority is defeating Islamic State and that politics are secondary and are up to Iraqis to sort out.

It is their decision to make and their process to develop,” U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken said Wednesday in Baghdad.

Kurdish President Masoud Barzani has signaled he is willing to cooperate for now. But some Iraqi Kurds are calling for talks that would partition Nineveh province, of which Mosul is the capital, and allow territories the Kurds have seized to vote on whether they want to join Kurdistan.

“There are several proposals on the table, but it is not yet proper to discuss them,” Mr. Barzani told France 24 in an interview last week.

Such demands underscore the challenges Iraq faces in remaining a unified country: With Islamic State militants in Iraq near defeat, the various forces and ethnic groups fighting them may no longer have a common enemy to unite against.

Antagonizing powerful allies is just the latest risk the Kurds have taken to further their ambitions of independence. Like their brethren across the border in Syria, Iraqi Kurds have used the war against Islamic State to burnish their credentials with the West as one of the most effective ground partners capable of defeating the militants.

Recent events in Syria reminded the Iraqi Kurds how quickly support can be pulled away by neighboring countries and superpowers: The U.S. acquiesced last month to a Turkish military incursion to push back U.S.-supported Syrian Kurds. Their military prowess against Islamic State had allowed them to advance beyond the Euphrates River, a boundary set to avoid provoking Ankara, which accuses the group of supporting terrorism in Turkey.

Source- Wall Street Journal

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