Erbil, Iraq -- Brig. Halgord Hikmat, the spokesman for the Kurdistan Regional Government's Peshmerga Ministry, made little effort to conceal his satisfaction on Friday.
"Yes," he said with a cheeky grin. "It is a very nice time to be Kurdish."
Only a few hours before, Kurdish soldiers known as Peshmerga were engaging Islamist insurgent fighters in Diyala Province, picking up the slack from hundreds of retreating Iraqi troops. On Thursday Peshmerga fighters moved decisively to occupy the nearby city of Kirkuk, easily expelling Islamist fighters who had sent Iraqi troops literally running for the hills.
The Iraqi government in Baghdad has suffered a string of humiliating military defeats this week as insurgents from the al Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham conquered several major cities.
But for Iraq's long put-upon Kurdish minority, the past week has offered perhaps the finest opportunity in a generation to assert the Kurds' long-delayed claims on disputed lands and eventually, said Brig. Hikmat, a fully independent Kurdish state.
By exposing the weakness of the Iraqi state and setting a precedent for other minority groups to announce their own self-rule, a Kurdish claim of independence could potentially do more damage to Iraqi unity than ISIS's sweeping assault of the past week--a fact that Brig. Hikmat readily acknowledged.
"This would be a further prelude for the division of Iraq," said Brig. Hikmat. "A united Iraq is not the solution at this moment. The creation of the Iraqi state in the last century doesn't have enough to it to keep Iraq as a united state."
Mr. Hikmat said he expects the KRG to allow Kirkuk residents to vote on becoming part of the semiautonomous region, but he declined to give details on future plans.
Such a move toward independence could set off shock waves beyond Iraq's borders. The Kurds were largely ignored in the post-World War I Great Game that saw European colonial powers parcel out Middle Eastern countries among themselves. After the lines were drawn, the Kurds were left without a state to call their own and with pieces of their polity spread throughout Iran, Syria, Turkey and Iraq.
Mr. Hikmat and other Kurdish politicians said there were no plans to carve out a Kurdish state from surrounding nations. But even the claim to an independent Kurdish state within Iraq's borders would rattle nearby governments who have long fought to integrate and suppress their own Kurdish minorities.
The Kurdish expansionism was met with little reaction from Baghdad, where the Shiite-dominated central government has long viewed the Kurds as opportunists. The office of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki didn't respond to repeated requests for a comment, and members of his Dawa Party didn't answer phone calls.
Iraqi politicians have made a habit of publicly pillorying the Kurds even as they relied on the Peshmerga--Kurdish for "those who confront death"--? for security in the restive stretches of northern Iraq.
The friction between Baghdad and Erbil derives mostly from a dispute over oil exports. For the past several years, the KRG has been pushing to export its own oil independently of the Iraqi government. According to Iraqi law, Erbil is entitled to 17% of the national budget after deductions for oil services contracts. But Kurdish politicians have long complained that Baghdad actually delivers far less.
Baghdad has refused to make payments to the KRG since February, prompting Kurdish cauthorities to suspend pay for many state employees. Many KRG public workers have spent the past few months on strike.
The conflict reached a head last month, when the KRG started exporting oil on its own through a pipeline leading to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Baghdad moved to sue the KRG and Turkey in the International Court of Arbitration in Paris.
Even before this week's military drama, the city of Kirkuk loomed large over the Baghdad-Erbil dispute. The Kurds have long considered the Kurdish-majority city to be part of their germinal nation despite successive Arab regimes' efforts to "Arabize" the oil-rich area by offering incentives for Arabs and other ethnic minorities to move there throughout the past century.
"These areas are over 90 % Kurdish anyway," said Dindar Zebari, the deputy minister of foreign relations of the KRG, of so-called "disputed areas" such as Kirkuk.
Yet while Kurdish soldiers have a reputation for professionalism that far surpasses soldiers from the rest of Iraq, non-Kurdish residents of Kirkuk said they felt frightened by the sudden influx of gun-toting Peshmerga.
"Our lives are in danger and we are terrified," said Salah Nawzad Bayatli, 36, an ethnic Turkmen who lives in Kirkuk. "We don't know what is going to happen in the next days but we know that this status is not normal and is threatening the future of Kirkuk."