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Independence dreams turn to despair for Iraq's Kurds

© AFP / by Abdallah IBRAHIM with Shwan MOHAMMAD in Sulaimaniyah | Iraqi forces have snatched the disputed city of Kirkuk, here shown on October 17, and its surrounding oil riches

KIRKUK (IRAQ) (AFP) - 

Just over three weeks ago, Iraqi Kurds were dancing in the streets after an overwhelming vote for independence fuelled hope they might finally gain their own country.

But now those dreams have turned to dust as Iraqi forces snatched the disputed city of Kirkuk and its surrounding oil riches in a lightning strike back that robbed Kurdistan of a key chunk of its revenues without a fight.

"Those who made us dream of a Kurdish state, have abandoned us," Kirkuk resident Omar Mahmud, 41, told AFP.

In the face of the Iraqi advance, Kurdish forces retreated from Kirkuk, handing the strategic territory to Baghdad with barely a whimper.

Mahmud stayed behind in the multi-ethnic city that had been under the control of the Iraqi Kurds since their peshmerga security forces claimed it in the chaos of the Islamic State group's 2014 rampage across the country.

But as Kurdish forces left, so too did his neighbours in a nearby Kurdish district "because they were too scared", he says.

Now Mahmud is furious with the Kurdish officials and commanders who allowed Kirkuk to fall in such an unexpected capitulation.

"They have to be put on trial and not just kicked out of power," he said.

- Blocked ambitions -

In Iraqi Kurdistan's regional capital Arbil, flags and posters supporting the September 25 referendum are still hanging on walls around the city, but the party appears long over.

Stationary shop owner Sirwan Najem, 31, felt a sinking sensation all too familiar to generations of Kurds who have fought for, but failed to achieve, their own state.

"Every time, in the history of the Kurds, the neighbouring countries have blocked us from realising our ambition of independence," he said, his eyes glued to a television for news.

This time, however, the pill is even more bitter -- as the crushing "yes" vote in the referendum sparked hope for many that it might finally spell the end of the Kurds' long journey.

Civil servant Kamran Ahmed was one of them. He said the loss of Kirkuk was like an "Iraqi coup d'etat with the support of Iran and Turkey", two neighbours who have long fought against the independence demands of their own Kurdish populations.

"The international community has to step in now to help the Kurdish people, recognise the referendum and work to get a withdrawal" of Iraqi troops from Kirkuk, he said.

But that hope looks like it will not come true.

The United States -- which has long supported the Kurds -- rejected the independence vote and stood by as Kirkuk was retaken.

- 'A catastrophe' -

In Sulaimaniyah, second city of autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, residents were shaken and angry after witnessing the arrival of tens of thousands of Kurdish civilians who had fled Kirkuk.

Agricultural engineer Sazan Tawfiq said she was "totally depressed" by what had happened and lashed out at Washington for its refusal to back the Kurds.

"A few days ago they were the allies of the Kurds because they needed them in the fight against the Islamic State group, but now they are turning their back on us."

But the bitter recriminations also targeted the leadership of the autonomous region and its long-time president Massud Barzani, who pushed on with the referendum despite demands not to from all sides.

"Many people have been accusing our leaders for years of hogging political and economic power to profit themselves and their families," said secondary school teacher Karukh Omar.

"They were warned, but now look what this has landed us with -- a catastrophe. The Kurdish leadership as it is today can't do anything for the Kurdish people or their cause."

And as the outlook has rapidly worsened for the Kurds, some veterans of the independence struggle admitted the dream of having their own state had been put on hold -- at least for now.

"For the moment it is delayed, as the situation is not right for it now," said Mahmud Othman, a founding member of Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party.

For the time being the main hope, he said, was that despite the heightened tensions with the central government "everything will develop peacefully".

by Abdallah IBRAHIM with Shwan MOHAMMAD in Sulaimaniyah

© 2017 AFP