Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan marched into the city of Kirkuk, at the heart of the oil-rich Kurdish heartland of northern Iraq, last week - apparently without getting permission from its American allies.
The move caused consternation in Turkey, anxious about any encouragement Iraqi Kurds might give to their 13 million counterparts in Turkey, where they have a long history of brutal repression. Under American pressure, the PUK promised to withdraw.
In Mosul, not far to the north west, Kurdish and American special forces took the city.
In Kirkuk, and especially in Mosul, communal blood-letting quickly ensued - in particular, in the latter, between Kurds and the minority (though historically more privileged) Turkoman (ethnically Turkish) community. As elsewhere in Iraq, there was widespread looting; but it is the communal tensions which are most troubling for the future. Kirkuk, heavily "arabised" by Saddam Hussein, is a pressure-cooker: Kurds expelled from their homes over the past twenty years want them back.
The two main Kurdish national parties, the PUK and Massoud Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party (from which the PUK is a split), have formed a close military alliance with the United States for this war - seeing it as an opportunity to remove Saddam. Relations between the two parties have recently been relatively cordial, but in the past there have been bitter rivalries and struggles. The autonomous region formed after 1991 by the "no fly zone" has seen violent conflicts for control between the two parties and their guerrilla armies of peshmergas.
In 1995, the KDP, to protect itself, did a deal with Saddam Hussein which allowed them to slaughter the PUK. Since then, they have shared control of the Kurdish region, with roughly equal representation in its parliament.
The Kurdish national movement in Iraq, unlike in Turkey, has not historically called for independence, only for autonomy - though they have been rewarded for it by Baghdad with savage repression ever since the early 1960s. There are more radical forces which want an independent Kurdish state (bringing the three main parts of Kurdistan, in Iraq, Turkey and Iran together), but these, in Iraq, remain a minority. Still, Turkey's fear is that if the Iraqi Kurds declared an independent state around Kirkuk, it would be economically viable as a result of the area's huge oil deposits, and Turkey's Kurds would want to secede to join it.
For now that is probably an unlikely scenario - as the Kurdish parties are more likely to want to be part of the new American-backed dispensation in Iraq, and won't want to be politically isolated. As a result, full-scale Turkish invasion of northern Iraq seems improbable in the immediate future (though there are some Turkish troops already there).
The KDP and PUK are, to a significant degree, more like tribal fiefdoms than modern political parties. Certainly, they are not radical nationalist movements (as their alliance with the US demonstrates - although for sure it has made some sense in terms of immediate politics). Whether they will attempt to curb chauvinistic tendencies among Kurds, towards Arabs and national minorities, remains to be seen - though they have an interest in doing so, to avoid antagonising Ankara (and therefore their American allies). Talabani has recently been categorical on the question (12 April):
"We support the rights of Turkomans more than we support the rights of Kurds because the Turkomans have suffered a great injustice. The Iraqi government has not even recognised Turkomans as an ethnic group. That is why we must stress this point until we achieve real equality." (KurdishMedia.com)
In the 1958 revolution, Kirkuk, with a large Kurdish population, was - because it is a centre of the oil industry - one of the strongholds of the powerful working class movement and the Communist Party which dominated it.
For a time in 1959, it was widely believed the CP could take power. Those traditions are old, and perhaps forgotten in modern-day, "arabised" Kirkuk. But they could revive. As the Iraqi economy begins to recover from sanctions and war, the working class also will revive. Kurdish workers will be crucial to that revival.
Immediately, the people of Kurdistan have the right to self-determination, whether autonomy within Iraq, or a separate state if that is what they wish.