WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) applauded Turkey's move to welcome an independent Kurdistan on its border. Reid, during an interview with The Huffington Post on Wednesday, said that whether the Kurds break away from Iraq and form their own country is a decision that will ultimately have to be made by actors in the region.
Turkey, however, had long been opposed, until a recent reversal. "I think it's great that Turkey put their imprimatur over this," Reid said. "It's good they did that, gave it their blessing, but the ultimate division of their country, if in fact there is one, has to come from Iraqis."
Last week, a spokesman for Turkey's ruling party told a Kurdish media outlet that the Kurds in Iraq have the right to self-determination. HuffPost published the statement, which had been overlooked in Western media, on Tuesday.
"The Kurds of Iraq can decide for themselves the name and type of the entity they are living in," Huseyin Celik, a spokesman for the Justice and Development Party, told the Kurdish online news outlet Rudaw.
The Kurds have been effectively autonomous since 1991, when the U.S. established a no-fly zone over northern Iraq. Turkey, a strong U.S. ally, has long opposed the creation of an independent Kurdistan so that its own eastern region, which has a large Kurdish population, would not be swallowed into it. But Celik's statement indicates the country may be starting to view an autonomous Kurdistan as a viable option -- a sort of bulwark against spreading extremism within a deeply unstable neighboring country.
"The Kurds, like any other nation, will have the right to decide their fate," Celik told Rudaw, in a story that was picked up by CNN's Turkish-language outlet. "Turkey has been supporting the Kurdistan Region till now and will continue this support."
The Iraqi Kurds took control of the city of Kirkuk last week and have fortified it since. As much as half or more of Iraq's oil exports come from Kirkuk, making it among the most prized possessions in Iraq, and oil will be the focal point of any dispute over Kurdish control.
The United States has for years been opposed to an independent Kurdistan, largely in support of Turkey's stance. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a leading foreign policy voice in conservative circles, was stunned to hear that a Turkish spokesman had opened the door to what the U.S. has so long opposed.
"I'm surprised," he told The Huffington Post. "But what about the Kurds in Syria? What about the Kurds in Turkey?"
He said he worries that it would only create more instability and that he never believed in what he called "the Biden plan," or independent Kurdish, Sunni and Shia states. Vice President Joe Biden strongly pushed for partition during the early stages of the Iraq War.
"The Biden plan of partitioning Iraq never made sense to me because the Sunni areas are held by people kicked out by al Qaeda," he said. "Just absorb what I said. From Aleppo to Baghdad, you're gonna have a radical Islamic Sunni group that was too radical for al Qaeda.
"This is what I worry about if you let Iraq fracture: Iranians are going to own the south. ISIS is going to own everything in the Sunni area, and if the Kurds break away, you've got friction for a long time to come between the Turks and Kurds because there are Kurdish elements in Syria, Iran and Turkey."
The Kurds, he suggested, would not settle for a state only in what is today Iraq. "If the Kurds break away, are you going to create a movement inside of Syria? Inside of Turkey and Iran to have a Kurdish state that encompasses those people? So this thing could spiral out of control and that could be another front," he said.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, the top Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, meanwhile, was much more open to Kurdish independence, suggesting that regional players must decide what's best.
"That's such a complex part of the world over there and it's not up to the United States to answer questions like that," he said. "It's for those folks to answer."
Sophia Jones contributed reporting from Erbil, Iraq, which the Kurds refer to as Hawler.