Arriving at Erbil’s gleaming airport in Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish zone not long ago, I went in search of a map. When I found one, I asked for an extra for a colleague. 

The woman peeping over the edge of the counter was reluctant.

"It's Baghdad. They are treating us very poorly," she explained, referring to the Iraq government freezing the region's share of the national budget. "They are not paying salaries here anymore. We have to conserve."

It seems a long way from the crisis currently gripping Iraq as Islamist militants sweep the north, but it is one small example of how soured relations have become between the Iraqi Kurds and the Baghdad establishment they once helped prop up as kingmakers in the early years after the U.S. invasion. 

Trying times, fraying relations

Baghdad’s increasing ire over Kurdish plans to export its oil and gas abroad directly led the central government to suspend the Kurdish share of Iraq’s national budget in 2013 and relations have been going downhill ever since. 

Kurdish Soldiers

The Kurdish Peshmerga forces have been able to keep ISIS at bay while Iraqi forces melted away in the face of the militant group's advance. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

It would be an understatement to call it bad timing for Iraq’s beleaguered Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to be on the outs with the Kurds given they control the only truly cohesive fighting force in Iraq, the renowned Peshmerga.   

At first glance, there would seem to be little incentive for the Kurds to prop up a central government under al-Maliki’s control.

The chaos in Iraq and the potential for its dismemberment has opened up a crack through which the Kurds can clearly see their long cherished dream glistening in the distance — that of an independent Kurdistan.

The chances that al-Maliki might be able to offer them an inducement for their support are increasingly slim, especially since his own days in office may be numbered.            

'They're being very quiet and they're waiting for everything to fall around them.'- Gareth Stansfield, Middle East politics professor on Kurdish leaders 

Gareth Stansfield, a professor of Middle East politics at England's University of Exeter, is a long time visitor to Iraqi Kurdistan. He doesn’t believe Iraq’s political leaders will heed Western calls to unite. 

"The Kurdish leaders are sat up here behind the Kurdistan army, in control of Kirkuk, moving oil north, and they can see the direction this is all going," he said during an interview in Erbil. "They’re being very quiet and they’re waiting for everything to fall around them."

The throne of Kirkuk  

Kirkuk, which sits not far down the road from Erbil, is key to the notion of Kurdish independence. Driving down from the north towards it, the city seems to float on a smudged landscape, the flares of the surrounding oil refineries a reminder of its siren call.

The city would give the Kurds the economic independence that they need to pursue their own course. 

Kirkuk has always been a bit of an island in Iraq. It’s been fought over by outsiders for so long, that an inevitable core identity has formed despite the divided nature of the city.  

“Kurds, Arabs, Turkmen. I don’t mind,” a young man with a Kurdish mother and an Arab father told me. "I live in Kirkuk, so I am Kirkuki."

Kirkuk’s fate was to have been decided by referendum by now. People who live in the city and in the rest of the Kirkuk province were scheduled to vote in 2007 on whether or not it should join the semi-autonomous Kurdish region just next door, but the vote has been repeatedly delayed.

Nearly a quarter of a million Kurds were expelled from Kirkuk by Saddam Hussein during his "Arabization" program in the 1990s.

But the ethnic Turkmen who live in Kirkuk lay similar claims to those of the Kurds and the government in Baghdad would be loath to part with the oil revenue it promises.

Managing Kurdistan’s diversity

Last year, Kurdish and Iraqi government troops came close to open clashes after Baghdad moved a special army unit up to Kirkuk.

But that unit is no more. Its commanders and soldiers simply melted away two weeks ago like other Iraqi troops in the north when faced with the potential threat of the group calling itself the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) coming their way. 

Mideast Iraq Kerry Kurdistan

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani on Tuesday as part of a diplomatic drive aimed at preventing the country from splitting apart. (Brendan Smialowski/The Associated Press)

The Kurds, would-be claimants to the throne of Kirkuk, simply slipped in and took over their abandoned positions.  

Not everyone is happy about the change. Some Turkmen groups are forming militias. But as the old saying goes, possession is nine-tenths of the law and there are many in the city who would like to see it joined to the relative stability of Iraqi Kurdistan.

One Turkmen resident told me when people talk about joining Iraqi Kurdistan, they are talking about all the city's ethnic groups. "Kurd, Arab, Sunni, Shia," he said.

The Kurdish advance

Kurdish troops have also moved in to other mixed or disputed cities in Iraq proper since the advance of ISIS and its allies in the form of disaffected Sunni tribes and ex-Baathists from the Saddam-era. 

“Since [ISIS] came to Mosul, we were told to come here to secure the town for all the groups,” a Kurdish soldier in the Iraqi village of Dibis told me.  “And this is Kurdistan here.”

Or soon will be if the Kurds have their way. 

The Kurds have taken advantage of the chaos in the rest of the country to expand their borders. But despite the possibilities the current crisis might open up for the Kurds, there are still many potential dangers ahead.

Engage or defend?  

If the ISIS militants and their allies manage to establish a permanent foothold in the north the Kurds will have a difficult, brutal neighbour, one that will strain Kurdish resources, said University of Exeter’s Stansfield.

"Kurdistan now has this big border to defend with relatively limited resources to do it," said Stansfield. “If ISIS and [and its allies] are successful they will be facing an enemy that will turn its attentions north very quickly."

'There is a strategic question here: do you look at the defence of Kurdistan or do you undermine your opposition while you can still do that?'- Gareth Stansfield, Middle East politics professor

"There is a strategic question here: do you look at the defence of Kurdistan or do you undermine your opposition while you can still do that?"

In other words, should they be engaging ISIS now for their own sake, never mind the Shia-led government in Baghdad.

Certainly the militants are moving closer to Kurdish-held territory, taking a number of villages south of Kirkuk. So far, the Kurds have focused on defensive tactics, trying not to get drawn into a fight.

Kurdish leaders have appealed to Washington for more help in preparing for any potential threat. They’ve also asked retired Peshmerga soldiers to re-enlist, a sign that military planners might be worried. 

"We often hear how good the Kurdistan army is, that they’re willing to defend Kurdistan to the death," said Stansfield. "But we haven’t seen them fully deployed. We haven’t seen them face an opponent as brutal, as well organized, as well funded as ISIS and their combined ISIS-Baathist-tribal insurgency that we see here."

Stansfield said he thinks the Peshmerga sense this could be a turning point in their long quest for independence.

"They are not going to be the Peshmerga that lose this chance," he said. "But this is perhaps more difficult than conventional wisdom would lead you to believe."

One thing is certain. That map I was looking for back at the airport is definitely out of date.