Two Rivers, Three Countries? Ethnography and Destiny in Iraq

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Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty

The surprise advance of Iraqi troops into the Kurdish-held city of Kirkuk on Monday raises a spectre that has haunted Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion: Can the country remain united?

In a referendum held this September by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), 90 percent of Iraqi Kurds voted in favor of independence from Iraq. The vote kicked off a rolling crisis that has led to neighboring states almost completely cutting off the Kurdish region.

Now, the combined forces of the Iraqi Army and Iraqi-government-sanctioned paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) appear to have taken the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, as well as a number of other disputed territories, including Sinjar.

The Kurdish government has threatened to fight to take the territory back, with Peshmerga media officer Halgurd Hikmat declaring on Monday that “the Peshmerga will certainly reorganize its forces” to repulse this new threat.

That leaves two U.S.-trained allies in the fight against ISIS now in open – if not yet violent – conflict, which brings into question whether the United States can and should spend time and resources trying to keep a clearly divided country together. A politically fractured Iraq arguably already made it vulnerable to the swift invasion by ISIS in 2014.

The Trump administration’s hands-off approach to the crisis and refusal to intervene on the Kurds’ behalf seems a clear signal that it won’t countenance Iraq’s splintering – in part because of the tacit permission that might give other would-be breakaway groups like Iraq’s Sunnis, and in part because a fractured Iraq would be easier for U.S. foe Iran to influence.

“If the KRG were to split from Iraq, then Baghdad would become an even easier target for cooption by Tehran,” said Bilal Wahab, Iraq expert and Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute. “An Iraq that is part Sunni and Kurdish is more likely to be pulled away from Iran than a truncated southern Iraq that is 90 percent Shi’a Arab,” he told The Cipher Brief.

As things stand, Iran already enjoys deep influence over the central government of Iraq, as well as direct military influence through Iran-backed PMU militias.

Iraq is starkly divided along ethnic and sectarian lines. Split roughly between a Shi’a majority in the south, Sunni majority in the west, and an autonomous Kurdish region in the north, Iraqi unity was maintained by Saddam Hussein through sheer force.

So cleaving them geographically would be fairly easy – but hardly fair when it comes to wealth. The majority-Sunni areas of Iraq don’t have any resources other than the Euphrates River Valley, meaning that any division of Iraq along ethnic and sectarian lines would mean creating a landlocked Sunni state, almost entirely dependent on budget transfers from the Shi’a government in Baghdad. The Kurdish region of the north is oil-rich and is, in many ways, already de facto independent, but it is also landlocked by two countries – Iran and Turkey – that have their own restive Kurdish populations and are deeply opposed to Kurdish independence.

Yet the call of partition or enhanced federalism in Iraq continues to have its appeal for Iraq’s Kurdish and Sunni minorities – and for some outsiders who’ve studied the problem.

“Joseph Biden was definitely the most high-profile proponent of this idea,” arguing for “not necessarily partition, but federalism in Iraq,” Wahab said.

In essence, the concept that then-senator Biden put forward in an essay published in 2006 with Leslie Gelb was relatively simple: decentralize the Iraqi government and “establish three largely autonomous regions with a viable central government in Baghdad. The Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions would each be responsible for their own domestic laws, administration and internal security.”

Yet after the U.S. invasion in 2003, the provisional authority opted to keep the country together, helping negotiate a three-part governing system with key leadership and mid-level bureaucratic positions apportioned to each ethnic group.

This quasi-federalist system largely fell apart after the 2010 parliamentary elections. After the relatively diverse and secular “Iraqiya” bloc led by Iyad al-Allawi won a parliamentary majority against then-Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s “State of Law” coalition, Maliki met Allawi and Kurdish leaders in Erbil to broker a power-sharing agreement.

The resulting “Erbil Agreement” left Maliki as prime minister but divvied up cabinet positions between the parties along sectarian lines, along with a number of other concessions.

That compromise was soon shaken by Maliki’s decision to issue an arrest warrant for the new Sunni Vice President, Tariq al Hashemi, on allegations of terrorism just one day after U.S. forces withdrew in 2011. His government’s refusal to release budget payments to Erbil in a spat over independent oil exports quickly soured relations between Baghdad and the KRG.

This discord created fertile ground for ISIS to plant roots in majority-Sunni areas, which felt neglected and persecuted by the Maliki government.

Haider al Abadi, who replaced Maliki in 2014, is a far more neutral figure, but his government has not managed to heal these deep internal divisions.

These problems were put on hold by both the Kurds and the central government until the threat posed by ISIS could be contained. Now that Mosul has been recaptured and ISIS’ territorial foothold in northern Iraq has largely been eradicated, internal regional, ethnic, and sectarian rivalries are rising once again, with the KRG’s independence referendum and Baghdad’s military response in Kirkuk just the latest examples.

“Iraq staying unified is always hard, but Iraq breaking up has always been harder,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Cipher Brief Expert, James Jeffrey.

Fritz Lodge is a Middle East analyst at The Cipher Brief. Follow him on Twitter @FritzLodge.

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