Iraq threatened by partition
LONDON - At a time when the Iraqi government’s strategy for pushing back the Islamic State (ISIS) is beginning to reap modest rewards, there are growing concerns that even total victory over the insurgents will not guarantee the survival of the Iraqi state.
In Kurdistan, there is renewed talk of independence almost 18 months after a referendum on breaking away from Baghdad was shelved in the face of the ISIS assault on the region. In Basra, in the oil-rich south, local Shias have renewed their perennial calls for autonomy in the face of alleged central government neglect.
In the east, around the disputed town of Tuz Khurmatu, there have been clashes involving Kurds, Turkmen and Arabs and multiple attacks on civilians, according to Human Rights Watch.
The moderate Shia politician Ayad Allawi recently suggested that there was no Iraqi state as such, merely a central power. “Everybody has a militia nowadays and see themselves as right and others as wrong,” he told an interviewer.
The former prime minister predicted: “If we do not overcome this crisis, Iraq will in the future face catastrophe and partition.”
Allawi’s views are perhaps coloured by his irritation at the decision of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to abolish his most recent post of vice-president. Abadi scrapped the positions of three vice-presidents in 2015 as part of reforms designed to combat sectarianism and corruption.
Parallel reforms of the military have borne some fruit in the recent clawing back of territory, including the town of Ramadi, seized by ISIS. However, the greater challenge of recovering the much larger city of Mosul lies ahead.
ISIS has reacted to its recent territorial losses with bomb attacks in Shia districts in eastern Iraq and near Baghdad, stoking sectarian tensions as Shia militias targeted local Sunnis in revenge.
Despite progress on reconstructing the national army, which fled in the face of the 2014 ISIS assault, the war effort is highly dependent on such Shia militias and the backing of foreign coalition air strikes.
The Kurds have shown themselves to be an effective force against ISIS, despite their internal political divisions. However, they are reluctant to be drawn into a war outside what is historically Kurdish territory.
Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, recently told CNN that the Kurds had regained all the Kurdish territory that had been seized by ISIS. They were also helping the Iraqi Army by securing the Mosul dam, located in “areas in which we are not interested”.
He was sceptical about a speedy liberation of Mosul. “In my view I don’t think the Iraqi Army will be ready until six months from now,” Barzani said.
Abadi faces the dilemma of granting concessions to one community without exciting the expectations of others. Soon after his government reached its latest deal with the Kurds in their long-running oil dispute with Baghdad, Abadi had to confront a delegation from Basra demanding the same autonomy enjoyed by Kurdistan.
The autonomy push came at a time of increasing lawlessness in the southern city following the diversion of local security forces to the battle against ISIS. In mid- January the government was reported to have sent in an armoured division of the army and additional police to try to halt mounting feuds between local Shia tribes.
In a recent study of the enduring sectarianism of Iraqi political and military affairs, Florence Gaub of the European Union Institute for Security Studies wrote:
“Kurdish politicians are uninterested in a strong, national Iraqi military as their long-term goal is independence. Sunni politicians are still struggling with a political system that does not treat them as equals and how to voice opposition and negotiate improvements within it. Shia politicians know that their numerical dominance guarantees them majorities if they continue to appeal to sectarian sentiment.”
Barzani is not alone in suggesting, as he did to CNN, that Iraq and its foreign allies need a much more solid strategy to defeat ISIS rather than merely containing it. However, even if the jihadist insurgents are eventually ousted, there is little anticipation that sectarian and ethnic divisions would suddenly evaporate.
Allawi is among those who say that if the present mistrust prevails, Iraq’s various components will eventually go their own way. But it would not be a peaceful separation, given the claims and counter-claims of the various communities. The former prime minister warned that such a partition might initiate a prolonged war.