When the Americans entered Baghdad in 2003 and toppled the Saddam Hussein regime, the only stable and viable force in the country were the Kurds who had managed to forge unity when the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Masoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by Jalal Talabani came together to present a united front to the whole world.
Thus the Kurds managed to dictate their terms on how the country should be run and how the new constitution of Iraq should be drafted. The Kurdish region comprised of the Irbil, Duhok and Suleimaniyah provinces and the fate of oil-rich Kirkuk was left to a referendum that never materialized, On paper, Kirkuk remains a part of Arab Iraq with the central government controlling it. The city has a large Turkish minority.
Now 14 years have passed since the toppling of Saddam and Iraq remains in shambles. The same goes for the unity of the Kurds who are running their own autonomous region in the north as the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). The alliance between the KDP and the PUK is broken, Barzani continues to head the KRG, however his presidency is being challenged by the PUK and the Goran movement, which has split from Talabani's party.
Goran and the PUK are fighting a battle of attrition against Barzani and control of the Suleimaniyah province bordering Iran. Barzani in return has kicked out Goran from Irbil while Goran supporters have burned down the KDP offices in Suleimaniyah. The two have good relations with the PKK, the Kurdish secessionist movement in Turkey that has its headquarters in the Qandil Mountains of northern Iraq on the Turkish border.
So in the midst of this mess, Daesh entered the scene and after capturing Mosul, launched attacks to capture Irbil and Kirkuk. Turkey and the United States prevented Daesh from taking Irbil but the Arab Shiite forces controlling the city fled fearing a Daesh invasion and the Kurds sent peshmerga forces to control the city.
Today Kirkuk is being run as a city with a special status that is linked to the central government in Baghdad and run by a city assembly.
Recently Daesh sent a group of terrorists to destabilize the city and the Suleimaniyah Kurds sent peshmerga reinforcements. This is where the twist comes. Apparently the PUK turned a blind eye as the PKK slipped its own militants among the peshmerga forces that entered Kirkuk. After Turkish protests, the PKK militants were withdrawn.
In recent days the city assembly dominated by Kurds decided to hoist the KRG flag along with the flag of Iraq in all public places, which created furor in Ankara as well as Baghdad. Turkish and Arab members of the assembly walked out of the voting. Then to add insult to injury, the same assembly decided to merge the region into the territory of the KRG.
The PUK and Goran were apparently behind both decisions. Now with his popularity sagging in the eyes of the Kurds of the region, Barzani is trying to remain in the game by saying he will declare a Kurdish independent state and then call for a referendum. On Sunday, the KDP and PUK set up a joint commission to draw up plans for holding a referendum for independence.
The Kurds are clearly playing a dangerous game with the PUK and Goran leading the field and Barzani trying to catch up. It is time for Ankara to establish meaningful dialogue with the PUK and the Goran movement, which are strongly influenced by Iran.