Friday, November 28, 2014
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From Kurds, Sunnis, more signs of Iraq's disintegration

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey (right), chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel brief reporters at the Pentagon. Dempsey said the world would have to contend with ISIS for "a generation or two."
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey (right), chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel brief reporters at the Pentagon. Dempsey said the world would have to contend with ISIS for "a generation or two." ALEX WONG / Getty Images
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey (right), chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel brief reporters at the Pentagon. Dempsey said the world would have to contend with ISIS for "a generation or two." Gallery: From Kurds, Sunnis, more signs of Iraq's disintegration
IRBIL, Iraq - Iraq appeared closer to its long-predicted disintegration Thursday as Kurdish leaders ordered steps to hold a referendum "as soon as possible" on self-rule for their oil-rich territory and Islamist extremists improved their military position by seizing additional territory across the border in Syria.

U.S. military officials, offering their first public assessment of the situation, said it would take decades to subdue the threat now posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which seized Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, on June 10, then raced southward 200 miles, coming to within an hour's drive of Baghdad before its advance was halted. On Sunday, it declared an Islamic caliphate on the land it controls in Syria and Iraq.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters in Washington that ISIS's rapid advance had "stretched" its resources. Still, he said he believed that the world community would have to wrestle with the organization for "a generation or two."

He also labeled as "bleak" the future for a united Iraq unless there is reconciliation between Sunni Arabs, who have supported ISIS's advances, and majority Shiite Arabs, who run the country's government. Dempsey said Iraq's political leaders, an apparent reference to Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, have to find a way "to separate Sunnis" from ISIS, with whom they have partnered "because they have zero confidence in the ability of Iraq's politicians to govern."

He said the United States' first task "is to determine whether we have a reliable Iraqi partner that is committed to growing their country into something that all Iraqis will be willing to participate in."

"If the answer to that is no, then the future is pretty bleak," Dempsey said.

The impact of ISIS successes in Iraq became clear Friday in Syria, where Islamist fighters took over five towns in the Deir el Zour region without a fight. The development allowed ISIS to secure its rear flanks, where it had been battling other Syrian rebel groups, and gain control over much of Syria's oil and natural gas production - an economic boon for an organization that already has seen its coffers filled with booty captured in Iraq.

ISIS was able to make its startling advance in Syria after the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's official Syrian affiliate and a bulwark of the movement to topple President Bashar al-Assad, abandoned its positions in Deir el Zour, the capital of the province by the same name, and Abu Kamal, another Syrian city, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group.

But it was what took place in Irbil on Thursday that was most likely to alter Iraq's future.

Massoud Barzani, president of the Kurdistan Regional Government, buoyed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's public support for independence, took the first legal steps Thursday toward holding a referendum on self-rule, instructing the regional Parliament to pass a bill setting up an election commission "as soon as possible."

"We have international support for independence, and those who do not support us do not oppose us," he said, according to an official statement.

Barzani also announced that Kurdish military forces would not withdraw from Kirkuk and other disputed areas outside Kurdistan's borders that it occupied after the collapse of the Iraqi army.

The White House did not criticize Kurdish moves toward independence but reiterated its long-held position that only a united government could counter ISIS. "The best way for Iraq to confront the threat" posed by the Islamic extremists "is to unify the country," White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

There was no immediate reaction from the central government in Baghdad, though Maliki has accused the Kurds in recent days of using the ISIS advance to pursue their own agenda. On Wednesday, he said there were no provisions in Iraq's constitution for the vote the Kurds were contemplating.

Mitchell Prothero and Mousab Alhamadee McCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS
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