By Samia Nakhoul and Isabel Coles
VALLEY OF THE CROWS, northern Iraq, Feb 4 (Reuters) - The black banner of the Islamic State, fixed to a shack within sight of this frontline, is evidence of the existential threat menacing the Kurds from across the 1,000-km long frontier.
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters are digging trenches and building defense berms in Wadi al-Ghorab (Valley Of The Crows), less than 2 km away from the IS-held Sultan Abdullah village, which demarcates the new border of their autonomous region.
The Kurds have enjoyed de facto self rule since the first Gulf War in 1991. They are now closer than ever to achieving their dream of full independence. Yet they are menaced by the deadly ambitions of the Islamic caliphate across the frontline.
Not far from Wadi al-Ghorab, mostly Sunni Arab Iraqi fighters were undergoing military training to help fight to regain Mosul, one of Iraq’s largest cities, and other Sunni towns that were overrun by Islamic State last June before it surged menacingly towards Erbil, the heart of Kurdish power.
The jihadi movement declared its cross-border caliphate last year after seizing territory in eastern Syria and west and northern Iraq. It now directly threatens the Iraqi Kurdish entity across lines that lie 45 km (30 miles) from Erbil, the bustling capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG).
To the southeast, Kurdish forces battled IS insurgents and last week recaptured an oil field near the city of Kirkuk, which Kurds seized last summer and proclaimed as their own.
“To have ISIS … we can’t sleep well,” said Fuad Hussein, Chief of Staff to Massoud Barzani, President of Kurdistan. ”It means every night having a nightmare.”
Najat Ali Saleh, a Peshmerga commander, said not a week passes when IS doesn’t try to wage a new offensive or attack to regain lost villages.
“They are stronger than us,” said Saleh near the Wadi al-Ghorab frontline. “We need heavy weapons to fight them. They have heavier weapons. We need artillery, mortars, armored cars and Humvees. Right now we have Kalashnikovs and machine guns.”
Across this new frontier, Sunni residents interviewed in Mosul, just 80 km from Erbil, tell of another world under Islamic State’s rule.
They recount tales of beheadings, executions, flogging and stoning to death in public squares. Punishments are meted out to Sunni Muslims seen by IS as not adhering to their nihilistic brand of Islam. Smoking cigarettes, watching movies or even world cup football games are all deemed un-Islamic. Music and all forms of arts are forbidden.
IS insurgents have taken over the schools, segregating girls from boys, even in nurseries, and changed the curriculum to implant their vision of Islam in young minds. They have set up military camps to train and recruit boys to replace fighters they have lost on the battlefield, residents say.
On the KRG-run side of the frontier, Kurdistan has witnessed not just political independence but hitherto unknown economic prosperity over the past decade, as hotels and construction projects mushroomed. The boom froze last year when Baghdad stopped paying the Kurds' share of the national budget as punishment for the region's move to export oil on its own terms.
For Kurds, the rise of IS has reinforced their belief that Iraq is a broken state, that they are better off in their own entity and that all other sects should emulate them.
From ordinary Kurds to top officials it is impossible to find anyone who believes in Iraq as one united country. All those interviewed want partition or at least federation.
The ties that bind Kurds with Arab Iraq are few and fraying.
Most Kurds born in the autonomous region, created after the Kurdish uprising that followed the 1991 Gulf War, don’t speak Arabic. Signposts along roads, on shops, military bases and government buildings are all in Kurdish, the official language of Kurdistan.
Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said Iraq, which has been ravaged by sectarian warfare since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, does not exist as a unified country.
“There is no loyalty to a country called Iraq,” he told Reuters in an interview.
“It really is important to find a formula for how to live together within the boundaries of what is called Iraq. Unless a formula is found, there will be more bloodshed and the country will remain a destabilizing factor in the region."
Pointing to Shi’ite-Sunni sectarian strife across Iraq, all Kurdish factions agree that a unified country ruled from Baghdad is a dream of the past and that power must be devolved to give each of the main sects, Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds their autonomous regions.
PARTITION ONLY SOLUTION?
But any such vision is unlikely to materialize unless they get rid of the Islamic State first, they say.
”The only solution (to stop the bloodshed) is to partition Iraq, everybody will be relieved. What are the benefits of keeping Iraq united with people killing each other every day?” said Sirwan Barzani, a prominent businessman but now a Peshmerga commander, and also a nephew of President Barzani.
Speaking at the Black Tiger Camp, Barzani, dressed in combat uniform, added: “At least if we can't have independence, let’s have three federal entities – Kurdish, Shi’ite and Sunni."
The sense of Iraqi national identity has evaporated since the 2003 invasion which handed power to the Shi’ites, ending decades-old Sunni rule with the toppling of Saddam, triggering sectarian wars and leading to the rise of radical Sunni groups, including al Qaeda, which spawned Islamic State.
Qubad Talabani, Deputy Prime Minister of KRG, said the reality is that a whole generation of Iraqis has grown up in a highly sectarian environment in the last decade. “We have Shi’ites promoting and defending Shi’ite policies; Sunnis rallying around Sunni identity and Kurds doing the same.”
“Iraqi unity as we knew it is over, so what political system could be devised to salvage the country? We have a model here in Kurdistan - maybe our exact model is not applicable to Sunnistan but some sort of autonomy is,” he said at his office in Erbil.
He said Sunnis living in scattered areas could have autonomy within their governorates even if they don't have a contiguous region. "So long as Baghdad remains the center of all decision making people will fight over it. There’s no leader today in the country that can talk on behalf of all Iraqis,” he added.
Less than a generation ago tens of thousands of Kurds in northern Iraq were victims of attempted genocide: aerial bombardment, mass executions, chemical gas attacks and massive displacement by Saddam’s forces. More than 4,500 Kurdish villages were destroyed and around 1 million Kurds displaced.
The al-Anfal Campaign, known to Kurds as the Kurdish Genocide waged by Saddam from 1986-89, is still engrained in the Kurdish psyche. It is hard to meet anyone who hasn’t been marked by al-Anfal, which culminated with a nerve gas attack in 1988 on Halabja in which up to 5,000 Kurds were killed.
“I don’t feel any sense of belonging to Iraq,” said Ihsan Sheikh Almozuril, 46, who works in a money exchange shop.
"Our loyalty is first and foremost to Kurdistan. Even when Iraq plays a football match against another country we support the opponent.
Sarkaft Ahmed, 18, who works in a shop selling household appliances and speaks no Arabic said: “We want to separate from them. Arabs are the enemy. They are treacherous and they kill.”
Ali Tahsin, 37, and whose mother is Arab and father is Kurd, said: “Right now no Iraqi feels as though they are Iraqi – it’s not just in Kurdistan. We are living in a country where there is no value for human life.”
On the ground, the war in Syria and IS’s push into Iraq from 2013, have burst open the boundaries in the Middle East - fixed after the 1916 Sykes-Picot accord, which carved up not just Iraq but the Levant between Britain and France based on interests.
These frontiers ignored the complex ethnic, tribal and religious differences that dominated Middle Eastern politics. And they left the Kurdish people, estimated now at 30 million and mostly Sunni by religion, to live as minority communities in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria as well as in the diaspora.
Ever since the KRG carved out a de facto independent enclave in northern Iraq, its neighbors in Turkey, Syria and Iran have fretted at the nightmarish prospect of a pan-Kurd state which might incite their own Kurdish minorities to secede.
While neighbors dread Kurdish secession that might break up their states, the reality on the ground is that the Kurds have given birth to a nation – at least in Iraq. Three enclaves in neighboring north-east Syria are practically under Kurdish control, although menaced by IS.
Kurdish officials said Kurds were fighting Islamic State for areas that rightfully belonged to the Kurdish region but that they would avoid using Peshmerga fighters to drive IS from Sunni areas – much less to spearhead the recapture of Sunni Mosul.
They insist that fight will have to be led by Iraqi army units, mostly Sunnis.
But any recapture of Mosul seems distant. PM Barzani and others emphasized that the timetable for such an offensive would depend on the rebuilding of the Iraqi army, which collapsed as IS conquered Mosul and raced across northern Iraq.
Atheel al-Nujeifi, the former regional governor who fled Mosul when IS pushed in, said the coalition’s response has been very slow and late. He said Mosul residents were too frightened to revolt unless supported by a force from outside.
"We think that if there were forces close to Mosul or on the outskirts, the city will mobilize (against IS) very quickly,” said Nujeifi, whose properties and Arab thoroughbred horses were looted by Islamic State, and whose Rolex watch was the one seen on the wrist of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi when he appeared at a mosque in Mosul last year to declare his caliphate.
(Additional reporting by Ned Parker; editing by Janet McBride)