Now that Baghdad’s control of northern Iraq has collapsed in the face of an onslaught by Sunni insurgents, Kurdish forces have been battling the al Qaeda-influenced militants pushing towards the capital.
But the Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga, have already won a major prize, seizing their historic capital Kirkuk and the oil-rich region bordering their self-governing territory.
The capture of key cities like Mosul and Tikrit by the well-armed forces of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has redrawn the map of a country consumed by sectarian hatred.
As the conflict escalates, Iraq’s most senior Shi’ite cleric urged his followers to take up arms to defend themselves against the Sunni revolt. A rare message from Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest religious authority for Shi’ites in Iraq, said people should unite to fight back against the insurgency by ISIL fighters and former Saddam loyalists.
The UN says hundreds of people were killed, many summarily executed, after Sunni Islamist militants overran Mosul.
Civilians have been seeking refuge in the Kurdish autonomous region of Erbil.
“We are afraid,” said one displaced man, insisting that the insurgents are not forming any sort of normal government.
“You know there are foreigners among them, there are Iraqis, and Saudis, it is a real mix,” he said.
As the Middle East is confronted with yet another crisis, the future of Iraq’s people and national boundaries in the whole region is at stake.