After Iraq’s Kurdistan region voted for independence last month, forces controlled by the central government in Baghdad began taking back territory acquired by the Kurds over the past two years. The city of Kirkuk — long held by the Kurdish forces — was taken over by Iraqi forces Monday. On Tuesday, militia forces affiliated with the central government took control over the city of Sinjar, which had also been in Kurdish hands.
The clashes have put Iraqi Kurdistan’s Western allies in a difficult position. Germany paused military training for Kurdish forces on Monday, arguing that the country was committed to neutrality in the conflict as it had previously supported both sides. The United States is facing the same dilemma. “We’re not taking sides,” President Trump said at a news conference Monday.
If the United States were to drop its support for Iraqi Kurdistan's independence bid, it could lose one of its most committed allies in the Middle East. Iraqi Kurdistan, a region in Iraq’s north that is governed autonomously, is one of the parts of the Middle East most well-disposed to the United States — even though it has been abandoned by its ally in the past.
The United States has at times entertained and, in other moments, ignored the Kurdish question.
Here are some of the key events that led to today's situation:
Iraq itself is the product of three old Ottoman vilayets, or provinces, that were subsequently claimed by British mandate after the end of World War I and the fall of the Ottoman Empire. At the time, President Woodrow Wilson supported the idea of autonomy for non-Turks in the Ottoman Empire. But the Kurds were to be disappointed: denied their own self-determination, their lands were split among Iran, Turkey and Iraq.
1963 — Then-Iraqi leader Abdel Karim Qassim is deposed in a coup that is reportedly supported by the U.S. government. Subsequently, Washington advises the Kurdish Iraqis to support the newly installed central government led by the Iraqi Baath Party, a secular Arab nationalist political movement.
1970 — Following that encouragement, an agreement is reached between the Kurdish Democratic Party and the central government, which promises more autonomy to the Kurds. The deal is negotiated with a politician who will later become known for his brutal repression of the Kurds: Saddam Hussein, at that time vice president of Iraq.
1972/1973 — Iraq’s Baath Party has become a threat in the eyes of the U.S. government. President Richard Nixon and Iran’s shah begin to fund the Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas and support their claims for autonomy. In 1972, Hussein had signed a “Friendship and Cooperation” treaty with the USSR.
1975 — After the surprising Algiers Agreement between Iran and Iraq is reached, the United States stops its support for the Kurdish rebels, which causes the fragmentation of the opposition and an increased vulnerability to Hussein's renewed attacks. While he exacts brutal revenge on the Kurds (including a catastrophic chemical weapons attack in 1988 that kills thousands), the United States breaks off all official relations to the opposition it previously backed.
1990 — Iraq occupies Kuwait, prompting the First Gulf War, which ends the alienation between the United States and the Kurds that had lasted for more than a decade. Iraq is defeated in Kuwait, but a subsequent uprising of Shiite Iraqis and Kurds (Hussein's Baath Party is primarily seen as Sunni-supported) fails to gain U.S. support. The uprising is unsuccessful, but Kurdish areas receive a degree of protection in 1991 when a “safe haven” is set up by the United Nations. A U.S.-backed opposition group called Iraqi National Congress will be based in Kurdistan in the following years. However, Kurdish divisions emerge.
1996 — As a result of these rivalries, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) attacks the Iraqi National Congress in Irbil with the help of Hussein’s army. Many rebel fighters are captured and executed by the attackers after the United States refuses to provide air support.
2003 — The U.S. invasion of Iraq results in cooperation between the two main Kurdish adversaries, the KDP and the PUK. Kurdish forces fight alongside U.S. troops against Hussein’s government.
2005 — A regional Kurdish parliament is formed. Soon after, oil discoveries lead to a fear within Iraq’s central government in Baghdad that the Kurdish autonomous region could try to secede. Furthermore, tensions between Turkey and Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq arise and provoke clashes. Turkey’s tough measures against its own Kurdish population extend over the border into Iraq.
2014 — The Islamic State group emerges from the ashes of Iraq's al-Qaeda branch and promptly takes control over much of Iraq's north as the national army flees. Kurdish forces move into the vacuum, stopping the extremists’ advance and taking over long-cherished territory such as Kirkuk. The Kurds press Washington for more arms and support.
September 2017 — Iraqi Kurds vote for independence in a referendum which causes an international backlash. The Iraqi government vows to take action against the region and the United States declares the results illegitimate. As Iraqi forces move against Kurdish gains of the past years, the United States declares itself neutral.
A previous version of this timeline was published in August 2014. It was updated Oct. 17, 2017.