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Kurdish forces enter Iraq conflict -

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MARK COLVIN: Fighting's still raging in and around Iraq's biggest oil refinery at Baiji north of Baghdad, and jihadist fighters for the fundamentalist group known as ISIS are still trying to make progress towards the capital.

But no matter how things turn out between ISIS and the Iraqi army, it's looking less and less likely that Iraq as we know it will remain as a single country.

Iraqi Kurdistan, already autonomous for years, is getting set to grab the opportunity to push for full independence.

Kurdish forces have already taken over the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. But that in itself means that the Kurds may need to start preparing for their own eventual battle against the Sunni jihadists of ISIS.

Namo Abdulla is the Washington bureau chief for Rudaw, an Iraqi Kurdish news network. He spoke to me from Erbil in Kurdistan.

NAMO ABDULLA: Kirkuk is, for example, which is home to one of the largest oil fields in Iraq, can produce more than 650,000 barrels of oil per day. Kirkuk has always been a flashpoint between the Kurdistan, between the Kurds and the Arabs, or even other ethnic groups in the city.

Even after the invasion of Iraq, Kirkuk has still been a flashpoint between the Kurdistan regional government and Baghdad. So, now, while the Iraqi government does no longer have the power or the military capability to attack Kurdistan, the conflict seems to have taken another shape.

Now, it's probably going to be between Sunni Arabs under the leadership of this Taliban-like, al-Qaeda-like radical group called ISIS, and the Kurdistan regional government.

MARK COLVIN: So, if that's the case, then I assume that you would be arguing that Kurdistan has no choice but to become independent so as to stay out of that conflict between fundamentalist Sunni and Shia?

NAMO ABDULLA: That's the argument that many people are making now. For example, Mark, if ISIS is going to control Baghdad tomorrow, what will the Kurds do?

I mean, that's at the moment, is very unlikely because of all the Shia people leaving in Baghdad. They're not likely to allow ISIS to control Baghdad easily.

How can the Kurds live in a country like a pre-9/11 Afghanistan, where you have a group like the Taliban controlling the country? They maybe not be able to even negotiate with such a government controlled by terrorists - that's the first thing.

And even if ISIS is not going to control Baghdad; Iraq is, on the ground, has ceased to exist as a unified country. Baghdad has no control over Kurdistan literally. It has had no control since 2003 invasion of Iraq.

And now...

MARK COLVIN: So this is really a complete collapse of confidence in the idea that somebody like Nouri al-Maliki can govern the whole country and can govern for all Iraqis.

NAMO ABDULLA: That's absolutely right, and Iraq has had this problem I think since it was founded more than a century ago. It has always been an ideology that different ruling elites have pursued in different forms actually.

As soon as they got in power, they're not interested in that idea, in that notion of having a decentralised Iraq. They know that the majority of Iraq's population, they can control the whole country, why should they control just part of Iraq?

MARK COLVIN: But the neighbouring states that also have Kurdish populations: Iran and Turkey and Syria, are profoundly opposed to Kurdish independence, full independence, in Iraq.

Will you be able to, will Kurdistan be able to hold the ground if it does become independent?

NAMO ABDULLA: I mean, that's not entirely clear, Mark, at the moment. I know Turkey, Iran and Syria, as you said, have always been against the idea of a full, independent Kurdistan. But that seems to have changed, especially for Turkey, because over the past decade or so, Turkey has emerged as a very important ally for Iraqi Kurds. Kurdistan has been an important source of oil for Turkey as well.

So, Turkey, while it used to see Kurdistan as some sort of existential threat to its territorial integrity, because of course the 15 million Kurds living in Turkey might pursue the same goal if the Kurds, yeah, in Iraq declared independence, that does seem to have changed. Now Turkey prefers to have, it seems to prefer to have a secure, stable, more democratic and more liberal ally, which is very economically friendly to Turkey than an Iraq ruled by the Shias, where it virtually has no influence.

MARK COLVIN: So if the complaint is that Iraqis have not been able to govern for the majority and the minority, will Kurds, with a minority inside their borders, be any more tolerant and any more flexible in dealing with what will become their minorities?

NAMO ABDULLA: So far, the Kurdistan region takes pride in actually being one of the most minority-friendly, if you wish, regions in the Middle East. Because, you know, Kurdistan has been a safe-haven for Christians who've left the violence in the rest of Iraq, or left the violence in Syria. Now there are more than 250,000 Syrian refugees here in Erbil, and they're taken care of very well actually, by the government, by the people, because many of them are Kurds in this case.

But there are also a substantial majority of Arab refugees, of Christian or from the rest of Iraq.

MARK COLVIN: Namo Abdulla from the Kurdish Iraqi news network Rudaw, speaking with me from Erbil.

The full interview will be available on our website from this evening.