Soldiers with the Kurdish pesh merga walk at an outpost on the edges of the contested city of Kirkuk on July 3 in Kirkuk, Iraq. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Up until a month ago, Baraq Taqan Ali split his time between two homes and two wives in what was a unified Iraq. Now, when the 55-year-old used-car dealer makes his weekly trip, he traverses the turf of two warring factions, neither of them loyal to Baghdad.

His village is occupied by Sunni militants of the al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State; his other home is in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, under the control of Kurdish soldiers known as pesh merga. Ali swears that both are preferable to the Shiite-dominated central government that has excluded and persecuted Sunni Arabs like him.

If Nouri al-Maliki stays, “Iraq will break into 1,000 pieces,” he said, referring to the embattled prime minister of Iraq, a Shiite Muslim.

“The pesh merga is better than the Islamic State, and the Islamic State is better than the government. There is no going back.”

Ali is not alone. Most residents interviewed across this ethnically and religiously diverse region say they are far better off since Kurdish forces moved into Kirkuk and nearby towns after the Iraqi army abandoned its posts last month during an Islamic State onslaught. The groundswell of support extends from the Kurdish majority to minority Sunni Arabs and ethnic Turkmens, who have previously resisted Kurdish efforts to absorb the area.

A pesh merga soldier stands watch in the main bazaar in Topzawa, Iraq, on June 11. Kurdish forces filled the security vacuum when Iraqi army left, much to the relief of this ethnically diverse town, which lies in disputed territory. (Jason Motlagh/For The Washington Post)

In recent weeks, the Iraqi Kurds have made bold strides toward their long-held goal of independence. Kurdish officials have called for a referendum on converting the semiautonomous region into a separate country. Meanwhile, their pesh merga fighters reinforce their hold along the new 620-mile fault line, taking care to secure oil resources for a future state.

On Friday, the Kurds seized two major oil fields and said they would use some of the production for domestic purposes. The move has intensified a bitter dispute with Baghdad and raised concerns in Western countries determined not to see Iraq fall apart.

But the central government’s weak hand — coupled with the pesh merga’s consolidation of gains and the apparent popular support for the Kurds’ enlargement of their territory — will make it hard to roll back the changes.

“It will be difficult to negotiate Kirkuk away from the Kurds,” said Denise Natali, an expert on Kurdish affairs at the Washington-based National Defense University. The “real issue now is the oil fields,” she added. “Much depends on how the Kurds will manage [revenue] and respond to minorities.”

The broadening acceptance of Kurdish authority is evident in Topzawa, a small, ethnically mixed town about 10 miles northeast of the line that divides territory held by Kurdish forces from areas controlled by Islamic State militants.

Last month, fearful residents of Topzawa holed up or fled in expectation of an attack. But since the pesh merga’s arrival, the return of residents and an influx of hundreds of families from territory controlled by the Islamic State has doubled the population to about 5,000 people.

On a recent afternoon, two Kurdish soldiers patrolled the main bazaar under a scorching sun. Although most of the stalls remain shuttered, struggling merchants were generally upbeat about the prospect of living in a Kurdish state.

Two Sunni Arab women who fled fighting in Mosul, Iraq, beg for money on one of the road leading into Kirkuk on June 11. Many families who have fled to the Kurdish-controlled region say they would prefer to live under a Kurdish regime than Baghdad. (Jason Motlagh/For The Washington Post)

Mofaq Abdallah Ahmed, 53, an ethnic Turkmen farmer who brings his rice to the market, blamed the Maliki government for “creating the Islamic State” by “playing Shiites against Sunnis.”

“The Kurds don’t care if you are Sunni or Shiite or Christian; they are practical,” he said. “If they stay here, things will be better for everyone.”

At one stall, Hassan Omar, 18, was servicing the car of a Sunni family who had left their insurgent-held village. The vehicle’s owner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said he decided to move his family because of the chance to live under a government that offered protection without favoring Sunnis or Shiites.

Although business has slowed to a trickle, Omar, a Sunni Arab, hoped that short-term losses caused by the nearby fighting would ultimately be offset by the kind of booming economic growth experienced in recent years by Kurdish cities in the north.

“We are waiting for this,” he said.

Further down the road, pesh merga units guard the region from Islamic State fighters. Ali, the merchant whose family spans both sides, says they allow him through a checkpoint and across the river that doubles as a front line.

He said that armed men regularly walk by his home in the village but that Islamic State militants have done little to alter life there. The insurgents have warned that they will punish thieves by amputating their limbs, he said, but no one has yet suffered such a fate.

“The fighters don’t really bother us,” he said.

But there is a brutal division between Islamic State fighters and Kurds. Gen. Mariwan Mohammad, a top Kurdish commander in Kirkuk province, said his forces have exchanged steady artillery and rocket fire with militants dug into a pair of villages south of the city.

So far, he said, 54 Kurdish fighters have been killed and 350 wounded along the 110-mile stretch that his forces help defend.

Mohammad said his soldiers have been welcomed in the area. But, he added, the militants are “very good fighters, and they are trying every day to break through” to access the vast oil fields around Kirkuk.

As part of its push to establish an Islamic caliphate across Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State has seized key refineries and begun selling oil on the black market to fill its war chest.

On Friday, a suicide car bombing and a roadside explosion near Kirkuk’s southern entrance killed 28 people and wounded 25. A day earlier, a bomb injured eight people.

Some residents — expecting the conflict involving the Iraqi military, the Kurds and the Islamic State to heat up — are buying guns to protect themselves.

“We are ready to fight to the death. If it is the Islamic State or the Iraqi army, we don’t care,” said a 31-year-old Kurd who identified himself only as Ahmed, showing off a Russian-made assault rifle that cost him $1,200 at a sidewalk market packed with hundreds of men.

However, many residents agree that regular patrols by security forces and a greater pesh merga presence outside the city are helping to restore confidence.

The most pressing concern is fuel. A severe shortage in northern Iraq has caused gas prices to quadruple from about 40 cents a liter to $1.70 (or nearly $6.50 for a gallon). In Kirkuk, those unable to afford black-market rates wait up to two days to fill their tanks at city stations.

“It’s impossible to earn a living right now,” said Marwan Ahmad, 30, a Sunni Arab taxi driver at the rear of a line of parked vehicles that stretched for more than a mile.

Asked whether he would vote to become part of an independent Kurdistan if given the chance, Ahmad mustered a smile. “If that happens,” he said, “there will be a big party here.”