Massoud Barzani is the president of the semiautonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq. His people, with larger ambitions of self-government, live on some of the richest oil fields in the country.
Now as the government in Baghdad fractures along sectarian lines, the Kurds are pushing for a fully independent state, one they can govern, protect and benefit from.
The Kurds’ Pershmerga — their own armed and trained troops — recently fended off advances from the threatening Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which has taken control of much of western and northern Iraq and declared an Islamic caliphate.
The fighting has made the question of borders and security even more important to the Kurds, who see Baghdad and Shia president Nouri al-Maliki in opposition to their nationalist goals.
"I would like to warn the Kurdish people, such a choice will hurt you, and it will take the region into a maze that you cannot exit," Maliki said recently.
"You already decided to be a part of democratic and federal Iraq, so you have your own federal region. There is no an article in our constitution allowing self-determination."
Maliki has gone further in his harsh rhetoric toward the Kurds, saying their capital, Erbil, has become a home for terrorists — a reference the ISIL-led Sunni insurgency — which does not help in reaching a possible political solution to the crisis in Iraq.
In the past few weeks, the Kurds have boycotted the Iraqi parliament. But there was a glimmer of hope for a political solution on Tuesday with the election of a new speaker, Sunni leader Salim al-Jubouri.
Now parliament has 30 days to elect a new president, and by tradition, that post goes to a Kurd. Fifteen days after that, a new government may be formed, and a new prime minister may be selected, leaving the Kurds and their representatives in an awkward position because they're vital to any long-term political solution to save Iraq but still have a strong desire for independence.
If they take the path to independence, oil and oil money are key. The Kurdish region of Iraq has the ninth-largest oil reserves in the world. Under the Iraqi constitution the Kurdish government is supposed to get 17.5 percent of the country’s oil revenue, but Maliki's government has cut off that money.
The current crisis began when ISIL-led insurgents overran Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Peshmerga forces immediately moved in to control the important oil city of Kirkuk. In the last few days, the Peshmerga captured two major oil fields and production facilities outside Kirkuk.
The Kurds believe they have the right to sell their oil and have cut deals with companies like Exxon-Mobil. In May the Kurdish regional government began exporting oil through a pipeline in Turkey. The International Energy Agency says exports of Kurdish oil were up 50 percent in the last month.