Wednesday, December 17, 2014

24 Voices On The Unity Of Iraq


Iraq is in the middle of a long war with a revitalized insurgency. As the violence continues the ties that bind Iraq together are being strained. For example there is talk of forming a Sumer Republic in southern Iraq. The rhetoric on social media went from Iraqis against the Islamic State to Shiites against the militants and their supporters. Right after the fall of Mosul Kurdistan was talking about having a referendum on independence although that has died down since then. It’s not clear how much of this is simply more people having access to the Internet or whether there has been a real change in Iraqi opinion. To discuss this matter is an esteemed group of Iraq observers who have all contributed their ideas on whether the country will survive this on going crisis.

Ahmed Ali is senior research analyst and Iraq Team lead at the Institute for the Study of War
Iraq will survive and will be unified. All the different communities realize that maintaining Iraq’s unity will be in their interest. This realization is not based on sentimentalism. The country is tied together by the oil wealth and by the presence of a common foe in ISIS. The ISIS threat is the most serious Iraq has witnessed in the post-Saddam era. ISIS is the only organization that wants a violent disintegration of the country. A unified Iraq is the recipe for defeating ISIS and maintaining domestic and regional stability. Conversely, the division of Iraq is a security threat that will exacerbate the ongoing civil war and make it even bloodier. Baghdad should counter a division scenario by empowering local governance. Modern Iraq has weathered severe storms for 93 years and its border is more than a line in the sand. In today’s Middle East, there is no colonial power to dictate new boundaries and enforce them. Iraqis will ultimately decide the fate of Iraq.  

Dr. Liam Anderson is a political science professor at Wright State University
The current situation in Iraq is undeniably grim, and ISIS’s rapid conquest of large swathes of northern and western Iraq is symptomatic of Iraq’s fundamental fragility as a state and nation; but the idea that the country is headed for imminent disintegration seems far-fetched in my view. The so-called “Sumer” project that envisages the secession of Shi’a controlled areas from Iraq is a non-starter.  Even if significant support for such a venture exists among the affected population, which seems implausible, the secession of Shi’a Iraq would redraw international boundaries and consequently require international recognition.  Apart from Iran itself, it is difficult to see why it is anyone’s interests to endorse the creation of a new oil-rich appendage to Iran.  The fate of Baghdad with its still sizeable Sunni minority is another critical stumbling block.  Either a new Sumer Republic includes Baghdad, in which case it imports a ready-made insurgency that would be enthusiastically supported by every Sunni power in the region, or it excludes Baghdad, in which case it leaves a large Shi’a population (and the al-Askari mosque) at the mercies of whatever rump Sunni state emerges from the remains of Iraq.  In short, Iraq’s Shi’a population would be significantly worse off after secession than before, which is why it will not happen.  At the opposite end of the country, President Barzani’s call in July for a referendum on Kurdish independence should also not be taken too literally.  Even if a vote takes place, which is doubtful, any actual declaration of independence would be opposed by most regional powers, including, critically, the US.  Meanwhile, the rapid advance of ISIS into areas supposedly controlled by Kurdish forces has starkly exposed the military vulnerability of any future Kurdish state, and the region still remains overwhelmingly dependent on revenues from Baghdad to fund the elaborate patronage network that sustains the political status quo in the Region.  Under current circumstances, Kurdish secession would be incredibly risky, as Kurdish leaders are all too aware.  None of this is to underestimate the scale of the problems Iraq will face for the foreseeable future, but in this context the seminal event of 2014 was not the ascent of ISIS, but the removal of al-Maliki from power.  Like all groups of its ilk, ISIS will self-destruct sooner or later and what matters most for Iraq is the quality of political leadership that shapes the aftermath.  During his brief tenure at the helm, new PM al-Abadie has purged the military of incompetents and al-Maliki lackeys, begun the process of dismantling al-Maliki’s personalized security architecture, secured the appointment of Ministers of Interior and Defense (who are not himself), and cut a deal on oil exports with the Kurds; small steps perhaps, but anything that helps dissipate the poisonous atmosphere that surrounded political relations under al-Maliki can only enhance Iraq’s survival prospects.   

Dr. Amatzia Baram is professor emeritus at the Department of the History of the Middle East and Director of the Center for Iraq Studies at the University of Haifa, Israel
Can Iraq stick together? Any answer needs to discuss briefly the Kurdish, Sunni and Shi’i approaches. 

The Kurds: Maybe the easiest assessment is regarding the Kurds.  Following the occupation of Mosul and much of Central-Northern Iraq by ISIS the Kurds had a golden opportunity to declare independence: their relations with Baghdad by then had reached rock-bottom with all of Baghdad’s financial contribution stopped.  Indeed President Mas’ud Barazani declared that an early independence plebiscite was on the way.  However, when an American-Iranian-Shi’i Iraqi coalition managed to ease Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki out of his job and to replace him by a new Shi’i politician the Kurds began to rethink. The oil and revenue agreement between Irbil and Baghdad in early December 2014 was sufficient for the Kurds to shelve the plebiscite.  It may even be suggested that the plebiscite was meant precisely with that purpose in mind: to pressure Baghdad to show flexibility, and it worked.  For the Kurds to depend on a weak Baghdad is more appealing than to depend on the good will of a strong Ankara.  This way they can enjoy both Baghdad’s financial support and Ankara’s business and political good-will.   Independence definitely remains a Kurdish dream, but tragedies and difficult realities have taught the Kurds that they must be pragmatic and calculate their future carefully, not given too much to emotion and ideology.  If worse comes to worse they can still declare independence.  If they continue to control Kirkuk as they do now, they will have fairly high oil revenues.  Even a pipeline through Turkey is already operational.  However, having no access to the high seas they need an ally with such an access. Since the dream of a mega-Kurdish state that will have access through Turkey to the Mediterranean is not going to materialize soon, unless Baghdad will be totally intransigent the Kurds are not likely to declare complete independence. 

As for the Sunnis, there is no unified political front nor a unified position.  And yet, if I can try to sum up the demands made by practically all Sunni groupings and factions, they boil down to the wish to have a Sunni region, possibly comprising al-Anbar, Salah al-Din and Ninnewe or each muhafaza to itself. That region will have the same autonomous authorities and privileges as the KRG.  More specifically it means that the region or regions will not only receive an equitable share in the national oil revenues, but also a local national guard, equipped and financed by Baghdad but commanded by the local political leadership.  The central army of the Iraqi state will not be allowed to enter this region unless invited by its political leadership.  Many Sunnis demand the complete shutting down of all Shi’i militias, but this is totally impractical.  As a minimum they demand that Shi’i militias will never be allowed to operate in Sunni majority areas.  In addition, all Sunni groupings demand an end to de-Ba’thification. This includes an equitable share of government jobs at the center and amnesty for all prisoners unless they were proved to have had blood on their hands.  Even in those cases though the expectation is that many or most would be released.  After all, many members of the Shi’i militias who murdered Sunnis have never been arrested and are still at large.  If Baghdad accepts those demands, or the most important of them, there is a reasonable chance that most Sunnis would like to stay within a united, though federated Iraq.  There are two reasons for that:  in the first place, the huge oil reserves of the Basra-Amara zone are a powerful aphrodisiac.  By contrast, so far the Sunni territories are not part of the map of oil and gas reserves of Iraq.  Secondly, like the Kurds the Sunnis, too, have no direct access to the high seas.  They can expect cooperation from Jordan but at a price.   Any access to the Syrian ports will be very difficult and costly for a long time to come.  It should be pointed out that most Sunnis are still dreaming of a centralized, united Iraq under their hegemony, but they are fully aware that this is unattainable.

As for the Shi’a, most of them would still like to be part of a bigger Iraq.  They see themselves as Iraqis and Arabs no less so than as Shi’is.  A small Shi’i Iraq or, as some suggest, a “Sumer” (surprisingly a Saddam-era perfectly secular name for their country), stretching from Basra to Baghdad, will have to depend very heavily on Tehran in facing the Sunni-Arab world.  Most Iraqi Shi’is are no fans of Tehran and, as has been happening since June 2014, they will reluctantly ask for Iranian protection only when desperate.  However, of all the three main communities of Iraq the Shi’a are those who could most easily accept the break-up of their country. This is the case because they have huge oil reserves, the necessary pipelines and an access to the Gulf.  However, in a federated Iraq, if such is achieved, at least the richest oil producing parts: Nasiriyya, Basra, Amara and Kut may decide that it is in their benefit to form a region of their own.  They will demand the same rights that the Kurds have and this will be certain to cut somewhat into the state’s oil revenues.   Presently, despite the huge revenues (around $100 billion in 2013) these territories have been neglected by Baghdad.  The infrastructure there is derelict and the population is very bitter.

Conclusion: Due to the great mutual resentment and lack of confidence between all the three ethno-religious communities,  the chances of a still-existing but federated Iraq along the lines described above are not high, ranging as I see it between one-in-five and even.  However, it seems that this would be the optimal solution and that such a solution is still possible.  If the Iraqi state military, maybe with Iranian and American support will re-conquer Mosul and al-Anbar without a Sunni-Shi’i political accord this will become an occupation  rather than liberation.  This will guarantee a long-term crisis situation and the de-facto disintegration of Iraq no less so than is situation right now, with ISIS in control of most of the Sunni areas.

Kamal Chomani is the co-founder of the Kurdish Policy Foundation and a journalist
Since its foundation, the republic of Iraq has not been able to be the country of all Iraqis based on citizenship and equal rights, that's why the breakup of Iraq has always survived in different phases. Though we, Kurds, have been the first peoples in Iraq that have sought independence, others have always thought of it especially after 2003. The Kurds soon realized that a strong central government based on Arab nationalism will always be at the expense of the others. Shiites also realized it but they were thinking of winning the regime as they did after 2003 as they were continuously repressed by Saddam's regime. Even so they got the central government, but have realized that their grievances have not ended. Eventually, Sunnis also understood that they could not continue in a Shiite dominated government and then the discourse became stronger amongst all Iraqis. Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis have all seen a kind of independence, but their problems have never been tackled. Undoubtedly, over 90% of Kurds want independence, Sunnis would prefer an independent Sunnistan rather than having a dominant aggressive Shiite government, Shiites from the South also think that their resources and geopolitics will make them a happy region if they go for independence. But does this solve the problems of Iraq? Of course not, and I do not think this will happen in the near future. 

Keeping Iraq together was not something Iraqis chose, but it was rather an international project that this country should remain united, in particular for the USA. If Iraq divides, the USA will lose its upper hand in the region as Kurds must choose Turkey and Iran over the US otherwise independence would be always under threat from Turkey and Iran. Shiitestan will definitely become a puppet country of Iran and Sunnistan will remain stuck into these politics, and the US won't be very much interested in Sunnistan as the Sunni region is not oil-rich.

I believe, neither a breakup nor keeping the current system serves Iraq at the moment. Instead, Iraq should be practically decentralized. To contain the dream of dividing Iraq, is to let federalism function and Iraqis come together to put an end to their grievances.
Three regions, or even more, in a decentralized-Federal Iraq will be the only solution that Iraq can stick together. If not, the dream of independence will continue and eventually Iraq will be divided. 

All in all, reforms, reconciliation, decentralization, democratization, bringing better public services, stability and equality are the reasons for keeping Iraq together. If these do not happen, Kurds will go for independence, and surely Kurdish independence will bring Sunnis and Shiite independence as well. 

Dr Eric Davis is professor of political science at Rutgers University
The likelihood of Iraq fragmenting along ethnoconfessional lines is remote.  While the idea makes for good media, conference topics and publications, there is no incentive structure that will lead large numbers of Iraqis to opt for breaking up their country.  

The Kurds are usually portrayed as the most likely to exit.  However, there are (at least) 3 reasons why this won’t happen.  First, there is too much money to be lost by the KRG leadership from oil if the Kurds secede, especially with the recently concluded oil pact with Baghdad.  (And let’s not forget Saddam-Masoud, Inc. that smuggled oil out of Iraq during the 1990s UN sanctions regime).  While large numbers of Kurds seek an independent state, the Kurdish leadership will not allow that to happen.  Second, the landlocked Kurds do not want to secede from Iraq only to become dependent on a powerful, authoritarian and untrustworthy AKP regime in Ankara.  Third, the IS crisis has demonstrated the Kurds’ military weakness and the US and the international community will be less willing to come to their aid if, contrary to Western wishes, the Kurds declare independence.

The Shi’a face strong regional, social class and ideological cleavages.  The Basrawis and Shi’a of the far south are furious at the manner in which Nuri al-Malilki’s government exploited their oil wealth, failed to deliver services and thwarted their attempt to create a 3 province semi-autonomous political region like the KRG.  With 60% of Iraq’s oil wealth in the far south, the Shi’a there do not trust the Shi’a of the south central shrine cities or Baghdad to promote their economic and social interests.  Social class rears its ugly head in the severe tensions (some would say hatred) between the poor Shi’a, represented by the Sadrists and militias such as Asa’ib al-Haqq and the middle class and professionally educated Shi’a parties such as al-Da’wa al-Islamiya and the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council.  Realizing their power would be curtailed, the Sadrists adamantly oppose Iraq’s breakup.  Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the al-marja’iya are fighting a do-or-die battle with Iran for the soul of Shiism and to prevent the idea of the State of the Supreme Jurisprudent from transforming Shiism into a political ideology.  A Shi’i state would give Iran even greater power in Iraq. Finally, both secular and religiously oriented Shi’a see a rump “Shiastan” as more susceptible to attacks from Wahhabi elements in Saudi Arabia, the Arab Gulf and throughout the Arab world.

Most Sunnis reject the breakup of Iraq if only because they see themselves as the traditional defenders of the country’s unity.  The Sunni community is so beset by internal cleavages that the leadership realizes that a rump “Sunnistan” would be a recipe for ongoing strife and instability.  There are tribal, regional and social class cleavages as well as strong ideological cleavages among the Sunnis.  Some Sunnis still cling to and defend the legacy of Ba’thist rule while others are drawn to the extremism of groups like the Islamic State.   Much of the violence in the Sunni community can be traced back to these fundamental political-ideological differences.  With the disastrous nature of IS rule in Mosul becoming more apparent every day, there is little appetite among Sunnis to see the breakup of Iraq.

Iraq faces enormous problems to be sure.  Nevertheless,  I predict that it will muddle though.  In short, I’m putting my money on a united Iraq

Steve Donnelly is a former member of the Salahaddin Provincial Reconstruction Team and served in the State Department
In January 2008, our convoy rumbled into Tikrit’s governate headquarters, when, during a slow-down, I took notice of a family dispatching their three children to the neighborhood school. The older two were charged to watch after the youngest, each in war-shabby but clean and pressed clothes. I thought about how this “so very normal” scene was playing out across the World each morning, and how, after any disaster, families fight desperately to re-establish normalcy to their daily lives. Yet, as events played out in Iraq, there were two profound gaps in our efforts: no reconciliation process to create a clean field for the future; and, no genuine community engagement. The military always worked with “leaders,” while the Department of State worked with “officials,” but, What happens when the “leaders” and “officials” can not, after reconciliation, deliver “community?”  Answer: What we have witnessed in Iraq in the past several years.  

Dr Johan Franzen is a senior lecturer in Middle Eastern History at the University of East Anglia
If social media is anything to go by, it would appear that Iraq is on the verge of (yet another inevitable) break-up. The Kurds are ever more strengthening their burgeoning region, whilst in the south, increasingly confident Shi'is talk about a future Sumer Republic. At the same time, the fanatical Islamic State is enjoying a shaky but stable relationship with many of Iraq's Sunni tribes. With the exception of the ISIS factor, the current situation is little different from earlier occasions when a possible break-up has been considered – at least on paper. However, the added ideological dimension that ISIS brings to the equation certainly makes the problem more explosive. On previous occasions I have always thought that secession was highly unlikely as the forces favoring cohesion were dominant. This time I am not so sure. Although I still believe that it is highly unlikely that Iraq will break up in the near future, I think in the end the issue will depend on whether ISIS is successful with its state building project. While it may look fanciful at the moment to think that the terrorists of ISIS would be able to build something durable and stable that received international recognition, I'd say that stranger things have happened. If one considers how Saudi Arabia was created in the 1920s and 30s, it looks almost like a blueprint for what the Daeshiyun are trying to do: an extremist armed movement driven by a fanatical ideology that allied itself with important Sunni tribes to consolidate its power. More importantly, perhaps, with the superpower of the day – Britain – quietly accepting what was ongoing and eventually accepting the fait accompli. There is certainly enough regional support for the ISIS project to potentially succeed. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other Gulf states, along with Turkey, certainly would not mind the creation of an Islamically-inspired Sunni state covering Western Iraq and Eastern Syria. Providing, of course, that the conservative, tribal elements gain the upper hand over the hotheaded ISIS extremists, who might otherwise turn such an entity into a competition into which regional state is the most Islamic – a prospect the Saudi elite is anxious to avoid, I'm sure. The key to the future, no doubt, is in the hands of the US. The American policy towards ISIS has been anything but straightforward. From cautious support in Syria with a view to defeating Bashar al-Asad, they have now reluctantly been forced to declare ISIS an enemy. However, if the aerial bombardment campaign that has been ongoing over the last few months is anything to go by, the American commitment to fight ISIS is lukewarm at best. It may well be that in a (highly unlikely) future scenario where the Sumer Republic has declared independence and has pledged allegiance to Iran, whilst the Kurds are about to do the same but fear a possible Turkish invasion, the Americans (and their main allies the Saudis, of course) would find the existence of a Sunni state in Western Iraq and Eastern Syria a useful asset.

This, as must have been gathered by now, is pure speculation, and it is more likely, I think, that ISIS is defeated militarily by the combined forces of the Iraqi army, the Syrian army, Kurdish peshmergas, Iranian intelligence and other assistance, plus US and Gulfi air bombardment. Ideologically, however, ISIS cannot be dismissed so easily I fear, and the basic problem of an unrepresentative Iraqi government unabashedly favoring the Shi'i population still remains at the core of the problem.

Fanar Haddad is a research fellow at the Middle East Institute, National University of Singapore
2014 is the first time Ive taken talk of Arab Iraq’s breakup seriously - the Kurdish region has always been another matter. What is really noticeable is how the mythology of Iraqi nationalism seems to be waning amongst Arab Iraqis. Where once even talk of federal regions was taboo, today we have people openly discussing partition and openly rejecting the Iraqi nation-state (as for example in the ‘Free Sumer Republic’ initiative). This has always been the psychological red line that Arab Iraqis, generally speaking, could not cross, which is what makes the recent shifts in public discourse on Iraq and Iraqi nationalism so remarkable. That’s not to say that the breakup of Iraq is imminent, unavoidable or even likely: even if (and it’s a big ‘if') Arab Iraq is to break up, there are many domestic, regional and international hurdles that any would-be breakaway state would have to traverse before achieving independence (plus theres the little issue of Iraq’s oil wealth!) Personally I still believe that a Kurdish state will eventually come to be, however, the odds remain against Arab Iraq breaking up. But I think that, after 11 years of carnage, 2014 may be the straw that breaks Iraqi nationalism’s back; Arab Iraq will hold but not due to Arab Iraqis’ belief in the mythology of Iraq as was the case in the past but rather because of self interest and the lack of obvious alternatives. This is a recipe for an unhappy future: one of the most important factors in a nation-state’s existence and viability is its people’s belief in it - and I think that has been seriously eroded in Arab Iraq. How permanent or transient this will prove to be will depend on whether or not Iraq’s political classes can yield alternatives who will finally be able to build a functional Iraqi state that delivers and that is regarded as legitimate by a reasonable cross-section of Iraqis. It’s a tall order and the current trajectory, in Iraq and the region, does not suggest that it is likely to be met anytime soon. Without major changes in Iraqi politics and significant progress in Iraqi state building, and without resolution of the region’s long standing issues and rivalries, there is little stopping Iraqi sectarian identities from eventually morphing into something more akin to race, ethnicity or ultimately even into post-Iraqi nations. Whether or not this process has already begun is a matter open to debate.

Sarhang Hamasaeed is senior program officer for the Middle East and Africa at the United States Institute of Peace
The turn of events over the past two years brought the viability of a united Iraq into question even by its hard core believers - the Sunni Arabs. In the past few months, the existential threat posed by the so called Islamic State (IS) to all the Iraqi communities has brought about reluctant agreements and cooperation between Iraq's political parties and governmental and non-government structures. Regional and international actors have gathered under a loose coalition to fight IS and support Iraq and push its political elites to cooperate.

The new government under Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi and its performance being positively received inside and outside Iraq, the recent Baghdad-Erbil agreement, and collaboration between the Iraqi security forces and the Peshmarga are all positive signs. However, they all came under intense regional and international pressure. It is far too early to take any of this for granted as or translating into political breakthrough. In the best case scenario, Iraq may survive with the same external borders (not guaranteed), but what Iraq looks like inside will be very different. Iraq continues to change from within.  While common fronts against IS may offer hope, a closer look at deep rooted distrust in each other, militarized communities and competing armed forces, prolonged displacement of some 2 million people and increasing prospects for lasting demographic changes, prospects of revenge in post-IS scenarios make the future of a unified Iraq far from certain. The gap within and among Iraq's communities are real. The slow progress on the ground against IS takes the focus away from the key issues that got Iraq to the current situation. The nature of the problem is changing by becoming more complicated and fragmented. It will take much higher level of pragmatism among the Iraqi leaders, and active and continued international engagement for Iraq to make real progress.

Haider Hamoudi is an associate professor of law and associate dean of research and faculty development at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law
Iraq's demise has been predicted before, inaccurately, and I remain confident it will remain a unified state, though perhaps one far more decentralized than it has been even recently.  The most obvious challenge would be keeping Kurdistan within the broader Iraqi nation, but if there is something that the past several months have taught us, it is that Kurdish independence is far from imminent.  There is of course the fact that the peshmerga proved unable to defend Erbil from ISIS without significant American air support, and the United States does not support Kurdish independence. However, equally importantly, Kurdish efforts to export oil over Baghdad's objection proved difficult to the point of being almost futile. It is not difficult to understand why--if the Kurdistan Regional Government sends a tanker to the Gulf of Mexico, and the Republic of Iraq then seeks an injunction preventing the sale of that oil because the oil belongs to Iraq, then the problem Kurdistan faces is far deeper than the supposedly "correct" interpretation of the extremely unclear articles of the Iraq Constitution respecting oil and gas.  The problem is that a cloud on title of this magnitude makes it extremely challenging for the Kurds to be able to finance themselves from oil sales without the approval of Baghdad.  Kurdistan remains, as it has been for some time, reliant on its 17% share of the national oil revenue to finance itself, and I see no sign of that changing in the near to medium term.

I should note that I dismiss out of hand any notion of an independent Sunni state, at least until someone could convince me that it would not be organized and run by ideological groupings so hostile to the United States, and indeed the entire West, that it would be something of a national security fetish to put an end to it.  Finally, I suppose it would not be impossible for a badly divided state such as Iraq to have a significant part of its majority population depart the state, thereby reducing the effective control over the state exercised by that majority to the advantage of the other ethnic and sectarian groups.  However, such a result seems extremely unlikely.  Baghdad's Shi'i led government would undoubtedly regard a separate Shi'a state as an existential crisis, and both it, and its Iranian supporters, would seemingly have the leverage to prevent it from coming about.

Faleh Jabar is the director of the Iraq Studies Institute, Beirut, Lebanon
The break up of Iraq is a theme that has been recurrent for too long. Under Saddam, and throughout the Iraq-Iran war, dictatorship was depicted as a guarantor of Iraq's unity. Post-conflict conflicts have been conceived as a portent to disintegration of Iraq as a nation-state. This conception overlooks two major factors:

1- Iraq's society is not only segmented along ethno-communal lines, but ethnic and religious communities are fragmented from within, rendering them incapable not only of providing a leadership for Iraq but also a single leadership of each community, however the latter is defined.

2- Separation, i.e., the creation of new polities out of an old one, requires sovereignty, which is both native and international. This means the creation a novel 'national' entity', but this does not solely depend on the will and consent of the naive forces-leadership-community, but also on international recognition. Apart from the Kurds, no political force in predominately Sunni provinces is musing with dividing Iraq. Internationally, there is no such willingness to recognize new state-lets emerging from the mantle of old Iraq.

Items 1 and 2, do not mean that divisions will discontinue, rather the war of all against all will inevitably reach a point of utter exhaustion, opening up a window for mutual accommodation. This may take a decade or so. Mutual communal accommodation means that all segments [have] to accept inclusion and participation in government, and are actually included in the administration, military and economic institutions of the state. Since Iraq is an oil-selling super-store, with no market economy, inclusion in state institutions is also a distribution of economic resources, a curse that characterizes rentier states. Centrist tendencies for such middle-of-the-road compromises and agreements do exist in society at large, as in the thinking of few prominent leaders. Remember the cooperation of Sadr-Barzani-Alawi to unseat Maliki in 2012, and their convergence to successfully block a third term  of Maliki. Commentators have focused on disunity and disintegration; I recognize this condition; but I try also to focus on the counter tendencies growing everywhere. Several anti-sectarian initiatives have been taken and are gaining popularity, growing slowly, but steadily.

Sajad Jiyad is a research fellow and associate member of the Iraqi Institute for Economic Reform
In the medium term I think there is no doubt that Iraq will remain as it is because the security situation is too fragile for any serious steps towards independence for any region of Iraq. The KRG and Basra will both push for greater autonomy which will relieve some of the pressure from their constituents but I think only the KRG is serious about seeking independence in the long term. I cannot see how Iraq will remain united without serious reform and moves towards proper implementation of federalism. There is no real incentive or desire for other regions apart from the KRG to seek independence. Talk of the Sumer republic is not realistic nor would it have much traction with either locals or Baghdad. The same applies to northern and western provinces. But maintaining territorial unity is easier than bringing about reconciliation and healing deeply divided communities. The real issue to me is whether the Iraqi identity will remain or will sectarianism divide regions but force them to live under the label of Iraq.

Dr. Abbas Kadhim is a senior policy fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University
I believe that Iraqis need to ask themselves two hard questions about their future: Can they coexist without bitter disputes that lead to bloodshed? And, is the geographic unity worthy of all the past losses and potential future risks? If they cannot answer both questions with a "Yes", then they must seriously consider a new arrangement. No map, no matter how precious, is more valuable than one human life. In light of the past record, and the recent years in particular, my personal answer to both questions is an emphatic "No".

Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor of Middle East History at California State University San Marcos
My belief that the Iraqi state will remain intact is not out of a nostalgic belief that the people of my ancestral home can get along despite the turmoil, but rather due to whether analysts are predicting this scenario without examining other possibilities. It seems that two separate issues have been conflated during the debate that ensued on whether Iraq is falling apart after the ISIS offensive in 2014.  There is the first issue of whether Iraq can survive now that a para-state has been carved out by ISIS.  The second deals with whether the Iraqi people themselves want the nation of Iraq to remain intact.  The reason to separate these issues is to create the discrete analytical categories to assess Iraq’s future. In the case of whether Iraq will survive ISIS’s declaration of its own state, governments in Baghdad have faced similar scenarios before. After the Gulf war of 1991, an uprising led to 15 out of Iraq's 18 provinces falling out of Saddam Hussein's control, dividing Iraq along Shia, Sunni and Kurdish lines. Saddam was able to reassert Baghdad's authority within a month, albeit in one of the most brutal counterinsurgencies in the history of the Middle East. A de-facto Kurdish state has existed in the north of Iraq for more than a decade following that uprising, protected by a no-fly zone, yet the Iraqi state formally remained intact.  There has been a long history of the survival of states despite the creation of para-states within its borders, whether they are in the region, such as Iran, which was able to crush two para-states carved out by the Soviets in Iranian Azerbaijan and Kurdistan, to extra-regional examples, such as Columbia’s fight against the FARC.   The second issue is whether the Iraqi people will break away and seek to carve out their own states within the borders of Iraq. In this case, the debate has not focused on whether this is an issue of seeking independence (as the Kurds sought to do during the summer of 2013) or is really a case for greater devolution of the central government’s powers to local governments.  The recent Baghdad-KRG oil deal can be seen as an example of successful devolution, and the calls by both local actors and the US for the Baghdad government to allow the creation of national-guard military forces in areas such as Al-Anbar and Nineveh is a case for future devolution.  If these devolutionary efforts fail, perhaps then the scenario of Iraq breaking apart might be feasible, but it seems that Iraqi actors will focus on these strategies first rather than facing the unknown future of secession.  While some Iraqis may want their own states, at the end it is the political elites that will achieve this, and for now it seems that political elites, even those that are die-hard opponents of the central government, will seek devolutionary strategies first. 

Ramzy Mardini is a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council
Over a decade since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the new Iraq remains locked in an unstable transition toward an unknown end-state. While many have proposed arguments and counterarguments -- both for and against the division of Iraq along ethnic lines -- neither a “one-Iraq” or “partitioned Iraq” is a realistic policy objective that can be enforced by the United States. The current crisis, like the many that proceeded it, are not so much the causes of instability, but rather a symptom of Iraq’s toxic polity reproducing itself. Has Iraq reached the breaking point? At this point, we will only know in hindsight. The consequential challenge for the new government in Baghdad is whether it can rewrite the rules of the game to reinforce unity, or will it simply come to mirror the old, divisive rules. Today, the conventional wisdom in Washington is that Iraq’s unity can only be safeguarded through the decentralization of power. Unfortunately, the mechanism of devolving power, without first confronting the deeper societal issues of mistrust and national reconciliation, may end up contributing to the fragmentation of the country, rather than serve as the glue that keeps it together.

Dr. Harith Hasan al-Qarawee is a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, Harvard University
This is the natural outcome of the institutionalization of ethnic and sectarian identities. As a result of political conflicts and competitions, the elites inside each community started to construct a narrative on the impossibility of maintaining Iraq's unity or the current make-up of the country. Conflicts such as the one started after ISIS invasion of Mosul strengthen these narratives because it feeds the fears and communal solidarity. However, I think political groups still tend to use this communal solidarity to increase their bargaining power for they realize that the decision to break away from Iraq without having an international support and internal consensus will be counter-productive. I recognize that there are more Shi'a individuals who see a benefit in the partition, but this opinion is not supported by any of the major parties, nor by Najaf. Iraq's problem is very much caused by bad governance and this will very likely continue. There are indications that intra-communal conflicts will intensify as soon as the inter-communal conflict de-escalates. Regional differences will become more salient as competition for power and resources continue inside each community; simply, we are talking here about the formation of three states, which means giving up on the whole structures of administration and economy that existed for long time. Some Sunni Arabs mistakenly think that having a Sunni region will give them autonomy from the Shi’a-dominated government similar to that of Kurdistan: That is very unlikely. Sunni Arabs lack the level of unity and the established leadership the Kurds have, and they have less power to bargain with Baghdad. Besides, there is no well-defined framework governing the relations between Kurdistan and Baghdad; it is definitely not a "federal" arrangement, even though it is formally defined as federalism. I think the Arab part of Iraq needs further decentralization, preferably without changing the provincial borders. This might be more realistic and less difficult to achieve since the constitution already stipulated it.

Dr Babak Rahimi is associate professor of communication, culture and religion at the University of California San Diego
Can Iraq maintain its unity with the threat of ISIS and the break up of the country into ethnic and sectarian cleavages? In my opinion, the least developed political cultural aspect of post-Baathist Iraq has been the formation of civic nationalism, that is, a sort of nationalism that would be inclusive of all and predominate an emerging democratic nation in need of a meaningful political order.  At the heart of civic nationalism is the form of state that derives political legitimacy from popular sovereignty, which its membership would go beyond local, tribal, ethnic and sectarian identities. This is not what happened after the 2003 invasion. Too much focus was given to institutional building such as the electoral system (rather political cultural formation). Meanwhile, the sheer rhetoric of “democratic rule,” offered as the solution to all of Iraq’s ills, provided no democratic vision for a nation increasingly undergoing civil and military conflict. After the invasion, the most difficult challenge in building a post-Baathist Iraq was the drafting of a constitution and the institutionalization of a political system inclusive of all Iraqis. However, the electoral system, too quickly institutionalized due to various internal and external factors, inherently enhanced ethnic cleavages and, more problematically, sectarianism. The post-war governments under Ibrahim Jaafari and Nouri al-Maliki did little to confront the emerging identity politics, pushing Iraq to an ethnic and sectarian nationalism, which to this day continues to haunt the country’s political order, especially with the threat of Sunni militancy led by ISIS.  What has made the political situation particularly unfortunate for Iraqis is the legacy of governance under Maliki, whose leadership cemented an Iraqi nationalism that is neither civic nor national. The current crisis of disintegration that Iraq now faces is nothing new. It has been years in the making.

Colonel Joel Rayburn is an active duty army officer, a senior military fellow at the National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies, and contributor to the Hoover Institute’s Working Group on Islamism and the International Order. The views expressed here are his own
I usually think about Iraqi political, social, and security dynamics in terms of centripetal versus centrifugal forces.  Centripetal forces pull objects together, toward the center, while centrifugal forces pull them apart, away from the center.  In 2008 and 2009, it seemed to me there was a centripetal moment:  a popular movement toward Iraqi national identity, which manifested itself in the victory of parties that ran on a nationalist platform in the January 2009 provincial elections over parties that put forward a sectarian Islamist agenda.  But since 2010 that nationalist moment has been undone by a variety of trends and events.  Maliki did a great deal of damage to it by reverting to a Shia Islamist approach aligned with the Iranians in order to break the Iraqiyah coalition in 2011-2012.  The Syrian civil war did even more damage by drawing in each of the major Iraqi communities and then feeding militancy back into Iraq.  The morphing of the Sunni protest movement of 2012 into a sectarian conflict against the Maliki government in 2013 led directly to the resurgence of ISIS inside Iraq.  And then the final blow to national identity was the empowerment of Shia militant groups sponsored by the Iranian regime as a response to Sunni militancy since June.  Today it appears to me that many of the Sunni leaders in Baghdad who are negotiating with the Abadi government and other Shia and Kurdish parties do not actually have a constituency in their home provinces anymore, meaning the vast mass of the Sunni electorate is alienated from the central government altogether.  The major Sunni cities of Iraq mainly lie outside the Iraqi state, and I don't see any way in the near term they can be reintegrated.  In Iraqi Kurdistan, meanwhile, it seems to me the long-term trend is overwhelmingly toward separation from the Iraqi state in every way except a financial arrangement about the sharing of oil revenues.  Finally, since June I have heard Iraqi Shia associates speak for the first time as though they, like Sunnis and Kurds, no longer really want to be part of the greater Iraqi state; as though they would be content to Baghdad, Diyala, southern Iraq, and Samarra--the "Great Sumer" region that has become a twitter hashtag.

I also see few champions for the idea of Iraqi unity.  Their voices seem to be drowned out by those who have decided it is better for their sect or ethnic group to live apart from the rest of the Iraqi people.  To my mind, these assembled factors mean that Iraq's centrifugal forces are stronger today than its centripetal ones, and the difference between the two is growing greater.  Unless circumstances change dramatically in the coming year or two, I am skeptical that Iraq will remain intact for the longer term.

Dr. Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute
Iraq’s demise is greatly exaggerated. Ever since the 2003 Iraq war began, doomsayers have been predicting the inevitable breakup of Iraq into three zones based on ethnic or sectarian identities. Without doubt, many Iraqi Kurds would dream of an independent Kurdistan. But many Iraqi leaders stand above the people, and the Kurdish leadership is no exception. Kurdistan Regional President Masud Barzani may use Kurdish nationalist rhetoric to rally people around his family and flag, but despite Iraqi Kurdistan’s newfound oil wealth, he is loath to abandon the money he and his government derive from the richer southern Iraqi oil fields. If the Kurdish leadership truly wanted independence, they could have declared it after their seizure of disputed territories earlier this year.
Sunni Arabs are no more willing to abandon Iraq. What Iraqi Sunnis lack in oil and water resources, they more than compensate for with Iraqi nationalism. Putting the Islamic State aside, the complaint voiced by Iraqi Sunnis is not a desire for independence, but rather a desire for disproportionate influence across the remainder of Iraq. And, as for the Iraqi Shi‘ites, with predominant power in Baghdad, why sacrifice their supremacy to assuage the separatist desire of others?
Iraq may not fracture into multiple states, but decentralization will prevail. Regional federalism is a fact of Iraqi life. Should Iraqi forces defeat the Islamic State, reconciliation and reconstruction in Sunni areas will be based upon administrative federalism in order to allow local authorities greater power over the purse. Kurdish nationalists may still dream of independence, but given the reality of their neighborhood—Iranian authorities have warned Iraqi Kurds they will tolerate no separatism in Iraq—discussion has shifted to regional confederation, not only within Iraq but also among neighboring Kurdish zones (indeed, regional confederation is even now preached by former separatists like imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan). Greater local authority is nothing to fear: the closer government is to the people, the more democratic governance can be. Welcome to the new Iraq, different from the old Iraq but nevertheless a country bound by history, greed and, fate.
Dr. Thabit Abdullah is associate professor of History at York University
While the general outlines of history can sometimes appear clear, Iraq is currently going through a period which is practically impossible to predict.  It is important to remember that Iraq's social fragmentation is not simply the result of pre-existing communal divisions and artificial colonial borders.  Much more important, are the decades of fascistic rule which destroyed civil society and established a culture of fear; three wars (especially the one with Iran) which destroyed the infrastructure and created a culture of violence; thirteen years of the most severe sanctions ever imposed on any country which decimated the middle classes; and the American occupation of 2003 which decapitated the state.  Such blows would have created deep social fissures in any country, even those with advanced civil institutions.  Despite all this, however, the country still made some impressive advances by stabilizing the currency, holding elections, and developing a vibrant media.  Nevertheless, desperation has exaggerated the power of sectarian demagogues and placed the country in a situation where nothing is inevitable. Maliki's policies have undoubtedly been harmful and set the country on the path of a complete break-up.  The rise of the Islamic State, on the other hand, has encouraged the new Abadi government to seek a rapprochement with the KRG and develop more fruitful relationships with patriotic Sunnis.  This has given unified Iraq a lifeline but the final outcome will not be known for many years to come and may end up with a Lebanon-like country: a divided Iraq united only in name.

Christine van den Toorn is the director of the Institute of Regional and International Studies at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani
Kurdistan aside, I have never agreed with analysts, scholars and politicians who say that Iraq should and will divide, and that it would be better off as such, and still do not. There is no one “Sunni” or “Shia” voice in Iraq that would legitimize and support such states. Sectarian and ethnic identities are not state builders. As a friend from Najaf whose family is affiliated with the Hakim family and ISCI said once, “You think my dad dislikes Allawi, you should see how he feels about Dawa!” Dividing Iraq would simply create a whole other set of potentially worse problems.

That said it is clear that with ISIS sectarianism has taken a new more serious turn for the worse. Suspicions and divisions among Sunnis and Shia are profoundly different and deeper than before June, particularly at the popular level. I think before June, you could still say that many Iraqis didn’t care about the Sunni, Shia divide and if they did, there was a good chance that they would move past it in coming years with stability, jobs and a representative government. But ISIS has made Iraqi Shia and Iraqi Kurds much more suspicious of Iraqi Sunnis in a way that did not exist before. And the Shia militias are deepening the divide. But while more salient and antagonistic than ever, identities are fluid and shift over time. With an inclusive government and a strong economy and education system, Iraqis can move past these sectarian identities.

Kurdistan is a separate issue. While Kurdistan parties and actors are by no means united, the KRG, however corrupt and patronage based, does have the start of what could serve as the foundation for a state – for example ministries, investment, infrastructure and representatives abroad. And while the Kurdish economy might not be ready for independence, with increased oil exports and diversification (both big ifs) this could change. And most importantly, both Kurdistan and Iraq will be better off if the two split. The Kurds understandably have only their own interests in mind when in Baghdad rather than the interests of building a strong Iraq.

Reidar Visser is an independent Iraq researcher who writes the blog Iraq and Gulf Analysis
Various forms of separatism have cropped up among Iraqi Shiites at various junctures in modern history but it is fair to argue that overall, this has been a parenthetical phenomenon. At key crossroads of Iraqi history such as the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1914 and the Iraqi revolution in 1958, separatist movements with Shiite agendas failed to materialize. On the whole, this tendency prevailed also after the fall of the Baath in 2003. A bid to form a federal region covering all the Shiite provinces failed soon after its inception in 2005, and similarly a project to transform the mainly Shiite province of Basra to a standalone federal unit in 2009 failed to receive the required level of popular backing to even hold a referendum. Instead, most Iraqi Shiite politicians and political parties have been vying for domination of the centralized Iraqi government in Baghdad.

It can be argued that current calls for the Shiites of Iraq to break away from the rest of an Iraq seen as plagued by troublesome Kurds and ISIS-aligned Sunnis represent the most dramatic new tendency in this picture historically. Since the rise of ISIS in 2013-14, such calls have become more frequent, especially among new voices advocating the establishment of some sort of Shiite sectarian republic that would have as its geographical core the parts of Iraq that are of particular interest to Shiites from Basra in the south to the holy city of Samarra in the north – in the eyes of some corresponding to the territory of the pre-Islamic civilization of Sumer. In an unprecedented situation, such calls have been endorsed even by some members of political parties that used to have a centralistic agenda (including the Daawa). It is new in the sense that it is explicitly separatist (not federalist), and it follows a wave of similarly unprecedented calls for federal regions among the Sunnis of Iraq in the period 2011–13 which for their part represented reactions to what was seen as centralistic and chauvinist Shiite rule by previous PM Maliki.

Still, it seems many of the problem that afflicted Shiite movements to change the administrative geography of Iraq in the past continue to impose limitations on these latest projects. Key among these factors is the continued division between Shiites in Baghdad and Najaf seeking a single new territorial entity, and Shiites in the far south around oil-rich Basra who would rather have the fullest possible control of their own affairs, separate from Baghdad and Najaf alike. Only a short time after the Sumer republic scheme had been floated, the movement that had been working for a federal unit in Basra in 2009 was resuscitated.  Additionally, a considerable number of Shiite leaders continue to hold on to the vision of a unified Iraqi state. Many have relatives and personal bonds to areas that would fall outside the projected Shiite statelet, indicative of the potential problems that might be unleashed if indeed an attempt to enforce partition were to go ahead. Additionally, the Iraqi constitution offers no legal mechanism for fully-fledged separatism, which is likely to dampen support in many established political Shiite circles.

Ironically, one of the major factors to decide the outcome may be outside the Shiite community. The stance of Iraq’s Sunnis, currently sandwiched between ISIS and the Baghdad government, may prove key. How they will respond to attempts by the Baghdad government to define a new defense policy capable of integrating Sunni tribes in the fight against ISIS will likely be decisive in shaping the stance of Shiite leaders, who are becoming increasingly reluctant to send Shiite soldiers into suspected ISIS bastions of support. If a redefined Iraq defense policy against ISIS can succeed in establishing more solid bonds between Sunni and Shiite leaders than witnessed during Maliki, the likelihood of the survival of Iraq itself may well get boosted too. 

Judith Yaphe is visiting professor of International Affairs, Institute for Middle East Studies, Elliott School, George Washington University
Iraq will survive, not because of what it is – a weak, divided, dysfunctional state – but because of what Iraqis are. Iraqis are survivors. In a region where there are often no survivors, it is what they are and it is what they do. They have survived, individually and collectively, centuries of invasions, foreign occupations, imposition of a so-called foreign king, decades of authoritarian rule by a sadistic killer with a self-centered world view, and devastating wars with their neighbors. They have created civilization, the rule of law, and pre-Islamic, Islamic and Arab culture; and they have done the unthinkable in attacking Muslim and Arab neighbors and fighting among themselves for power in the name of religion and ethnic causes. They committed ethnic cleansing and retaliatory killings under military rulers, tribal law, and religious fervor for the good of the leader, party, tribe, and town. Some argue that Iraq should never have been a country while others say it will never be a country again. Yet, many of us remember a country and a people of learning, wit, and tolerance. Yes, tolerance. A country where sectarian war was unheard of, where intermarriage between Sunni and Shia, Arab and Kurd was common and communities lived and worked together. What country in this vulnerable region has not experienced wars, threats, and the disruption of civil society or experienced it as Iraq has?
Iraq now is engaged in what may be its ultimate existential crisis – a civil war that has turned tribe against tribe, Sunni against Shia, Arab against Kurd, and neighbor against neighbor. Iraq’s Arab and Kurdish leaders seem to understand an axiom attributed to American Revolutionary War leader Benjamin Franklin that “If we do not hang together, then we shall certainly hang separately.” In English, the play is on the two meanings of “to hang” – the first meaning to cooperate, the second to be killed. Prime Minister Abadi has taken significant initial steps to resolve differences between the KRG and Baghdad. He is willing to meet Kurdish budget demands, agree to oil sales and contracts under specific terms, and appoint additional Kurds to senior government posts. The Kurds have dropped, for the moment, threats to declare independence. Neither appears to have mentioned the fate of the disputed territories which the Kurds quickly occupied when Mosul fell, a certain deal-breaker if and when it is raised. So, what is to become of Iraq? Abadi’s sole mission is to keep the country together to defeat ISIS. How he does that will require intelligence, cunning, a willingness to take risks, and a willingness of all Iraqis “to hang together.” Mr. Barzani’s mission is to protect the gains the Kurds have made and defend his people. Neither can succeed without the other, in my humble opinion.
Akiko Yoshioka is a senior researcher at the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan
The four years of al-Abadi administration is the last chance to rebuild Iraq; without regaining control of western and central cities in the hands of the government, no elections will be held and the current administration as well as the political process since 2003 will lose its legitimacy. One of the few possible approaches for stabilizing Iraq will be a trend toward devolution; the implementation of the provincial powers law in 2013 that increases the administrative and security authority of governorates are among the proposals to cope with Sunni discontent. It may not be an easy choice because the introduction of federalism to decentralize a state is definitely more difficult than assembling separate states and in addition, the progress of security and reconstruction also requires enhancements to general local administration and the diminishment of corruption. On the other hand, separation of the nation is highly contentious, in part due to controversy over the newly created boundaries and uneven distribution of natural resources. It would benefit Iraq to keep united and reform the current political system, even though this might not exclude the possibility of a de-facto partition of the state. As regards Kurdistan, if Iraqi government accepts the fait accompli on the ground and shares power with KRG as it claims, which is what I think PM Nechirvan calls confederation, Kurdistan has a reason to be a part of Iraq. Otherwise, unilateral independence will be an option and the critical political decision depends on how much support it could gain in the international society including neighbouring countries.

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