January 22, 2016

Iraq threatened by partition

An Iraqi checking a damaged building near al-Jawaher mall in eastern Baghdad

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.

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