CIA expanding facilities in Kurdistan?

It’s no secret that the Kurds see the civil war in Iraq as their opportunity for independence, but until now the US has publicly insisted on keeping Iraq a unitary state, even to the point that the Kurds began complaining that the US was the main obstacle to their national aspirations. Privately, however, it appears that the CIA has begun investing in infrastructure in Irbil as part of their effort to gather intel on ISIS. That, McClatchy’s Mitchell Prothero reports, suggests that the US has begun covering its bases as reality sets in on Iraq’s sunset:

A supposedly secret but locally well-known CIA station on the outskirts of Irbil’s airport is undergoing rapid expansion as the United States considers whether to engage in a war against Islamist militants who’ve seized control of half of Iraq in the past month.

Western contractors hired to expand the facility and a local intelligence official confirmed the construction project, which is visible from the main highway linking Irbil to Mosul, the city whose fall June 9 triggered the Islamic State’s sweep through northern and central Iraq. Residents around the airport say they can hear daily what they suspect are American drones taking off and landing at the facility.

Expansion of the facility comes as it seems all but certain that the autonomous Kurdish regional government and the central government in Baghdad, never easy partners, are headed for an irrevocable split _ complicating any U.S. military hopes of coordinating the two entities’ efforts against the Islamic State. …

During a recent visit to the site, extensive construction of new roads off the main highway could be seen, as well as what appeared to be construction of a fortified gate complex to protect access, which previously had been controlled by a simple dirt road and checkpoint flanked by two bunkers guarded by men in peshmerga uniforms.

Armored sport utility vehicles driven by military-appearing Westerners in civilian clothes were seen entering and exiting the facility in convoy fashion.

“Irbil is a very friendly place for people in the intelligence business,” a Western military attache said on the condition he not be identified because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the matter. “So many locals worked with the Americans and remember them fondly, that you didn’t need the hardened defenses that you’d find normally this close to a battlefield.”

If the US is throwing in with the Kurds clandestinely, Iraq’s minority populations are doing so more openly. Baghdad wants Kirkuk back when the fighting’s over — if and whenever — but the locals in the area prefer the new management:

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. …

“It will be difficult to negotiate Kirkuk away from the Kurds,” said Denise Natali, an expert on Kurdish affairs at the 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 front line that divides territory held by Kurdish forces from areas controlled by Islamic State militants.

Last month, fearful residents of Topzawa had holed up or fled in expectation of an attack. Since the pesh merga arrived, the population has doubled to about 5,000 people with the return of residents and the arrival of hundreds of families from Islamic State-controlled territory.

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

Iraqis can thank Nouri al-Maliki for the sea change in opinion, as well as ISIS being the only other realistic alternative. Maliki used his position to shut everyone else except his Shi’ite constituency from power, and now no one wants to ride to the rescue of a unitary Iraq under his leadership. Unfortunately, the Iraqi parliament still made no progress yesterday to form a government to replace Maliki, and now the Sunni delegation has joined the Kurds in walking out until Maliki withdraws as a candidate for another term as Prime Minister:

Iraq’s deadlocked parliament on Sunday failed to overcome the deep divisions hampering the formation of a new government, making no progress on choosing leaders who could help hold the nation together and confront the Sunni militant blitz that has overrun much of the country. …

But just 30 minutes into Sunday’s session, acting speaker Mahdi Hafidh announced that he was suspending the proceedings until Tuesday “due to the absence of any agreement on the names of the nominees for the three posts.”

Hopes had been raised that lawmakers might at least vote on a speaker after Sunni blocs announced Saturday that they had agreed on a candidate, Salim al-Jubouri. But even that proved difficult, and lawmakers dispersed amid mutual recriminations.

ASunni legislator, Saleh al-Mutlak, said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki agreed to support Jubouri’s candidacy on the condition that Sunnis back Maliki for a third consecutive term. “This will not happen as we do not accept that,” Mutlak said.

At this point, the parliament’s struggles resemble a rearrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic, with the iceberg at the helm refusing to leave.