In 2014, the invasion of the country and the conquest of Mosul by the hordes of the Islamic State’s jihadists, arrived from Syria, had been placed on standby the fundamental cleavages that have torn Iraq up for a century. Iraq, the “non-nation” that constant bubble, since the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreements cut off the Middle East without regard to the people, their history, or their religion.
In 2003, the US aggression (decided unilaterally and without UN Security Council approval) reversed the Sunni-Shiite situation: after ousting Saddam Hussein, who based his authority on the support of the Sunni minority, Washington undertook to control Iraq by relying on the Shia majority (hitherto frustrated of power) and to promote that fraction of the “nation” that has gradually monopolized all of the levels of the state (personify in the Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki), including the high military functions, the army having been purged of its Sunni officers.
For the Sunni community in Iraq, a strange situation began: the Sunni regions of the north and west of the country were “occupied” by an almost entirely “Shiitized” army. As was the capital, Baghdad: the Sunnis were gradually driven out.
Vexations were the lot of the Sunnis, subject to the authority of Shiite police and civil workers who took their revenge on thirty years of Sunni-Baathism.
When the Islamic State (ISIS) extended its empire over the Sunni regions of Iraq, it was generally well received, even if after a few months many have been disillusioned.
Others bet a lot on that invasion: the Kurds (in northern Iraq) hoped for a sufficient weakening of the Baghdad government to succeed in becoming independent.
Today, at the beginning of 2018, the defeat of ISIS, which had overshadowed the Iraqi issues, (re)lifts the veil that had been thrown for three years on the internal crisis that could now lead to the partition of a fractured country.
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For Iraqi Kurdistan, the awakening is cruel…
How was it possible that Kurdish lost all the territories they conquered during the war against ISIS? How were they so quickly defeated by the Iraqi army? Was the famous Peshmerga a myth?
These were the questions that jostled in the minds of the observers, surprised by the swift and complete defeat of the Kurdish forces when in October 2017, the Iraqi army embarked on the reconquest of Iraqi Kurdistan, crushing the famous Peshmerga in just a few days.
On 25 September 2017 however, the government of the Iraqi Kurdistan Autonomous Region had held a referendum for independence: 92.7% of the voters had expressed themselves in favor of independence. It was Masood Barzani (who was president of the Kurdish Regional Government – KRG) who decided to start Kurdistan region independence elections, including all the lands that were taken from ISIS and Iraq during the war. This situation was unacceptable for Baghdad, because most of the country’s oil resources are located in northern Iraq, notably in the Kurdish region of Kirkuk.
However, the Iraqi Kurds were convinced they could stand up to an Iraqi army that had been defeated in Mosul in 2014 in hallucinating conditions: more than 60,000 men had abandoned their positions, against 800 determined jihadists.
But Erbil overestimated the potential of his famous Peshmerga (who, in fact, fought very little during the war against ISIS – and it will be remembered that in 2014, when jihadists crossed the Nineveh plains to attack Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, the Peshmerga had retreated, forcing the American air force to intervene to protect its ally unable to resist the Islamist advance) and underestimated the military capacity of the Shiite militias, created after the call of the religious Shiite’s in Iraq, because of the fall of Mosul. These militias were the spearhead of the war against the Islamic State and their many fighters, ready for martyrdom, did not let themselves be impressed by the Peshmerga, who fled like rabbits.
Thus, ended the Kurdish dream of independence expected for decades and that some believed very close. A dream that the Islamic State seemed to have made possible: since 2014, the Kurds had taken advantage of the difficulties that the Iraqi army was facing, to gradually seize Kirkuk and all the Nineveh plains, all the territories they claimed; they had then built a veritable “Hadrian’s wall” to materialize their new frontier, a line of ditches, trenches, forts and bulldozed bulwarks, from the top of which the Peshmerga were slyly observing the Iraqi army struggling with the Islamist forces. The fight against ISIS was no longer their problem; ISIS, on the contrary, was in fact their ally against the “Iraqis”.
The Peshmerga even set off dynamite in several Arab villages that they considered “too close” to their border, the goal being too clearly mark the territory by the creation of a no-man’s land.
A vast plan that was effectively carried out, as long as no major force opposed the Peshmerga, and was swept away in less than a week.
The Kurdistan Regional Government was thus forced to recognize its defeat and to suspend the declaration of independence. Baghdad regained control of Erbil and Suleymaniah airports, and of course the oil of Kirkuk.
And now, what do the new Kurds project for their future?
It’s obvious that tensions have been increasing between the Kurdish Peshmerga and the Shia forces in Iraq who were on the verge of collusion for territorial control in the aftermath of the war against the Islamic State in Iraq.
The Peshmerga were supported by the US-led Coalition. This international support was coming by many different overt and covert operations. Some included US air strikes against ISIS of which the Peshmerga forces took advantage of. Thus, the latter also started to expand their territory with the advantage of even more sophisticated weapon supplies by both US andEuropean allies. This made Kurdish incursion possible of some, mostly Arab territories.
The United States motivation was to support the Peshmerga and push back ISIS towards Mosul, and southwest Kurdistan. Meanwhile, the “international coalition” was providing help to the Iraqi Armed Forces, which was fighting ISIS from the central and western fronts near Mosul and for the Iraqi government push forward from the north. Both the Peshmerga and Iraqi Armed Forces benefited from the US-led Coalition.
However, the Kurdish Regional Government claimed control of much of the territory they gained, and they rejected the Baghdadi Central Government’s demands to withdraw to their former Kurdistan regional lines.
The US government was not pleased with Barzani’s move and tried to convince him to take a step back, which he rejected. As a response, most of the international community took sides with the White House and stood against the independence movement. Then the Iraqi Prime Minister used its constitutional right to take use of its military force to keep the country united according to the Iraqi constitution.
The consequence is that the KRG now finds itself without any way to finance its administration, nor to pay the Peshmerga’s salaries. On the other hand, there has been increasing dissension between the different Kurdish factions, mainly between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP – based in Erbil, the party of Barzani; and supported by Turkey) and the Kurdistan Patriotic Union (PUK – based in Suleymaniah and close to Iran and the PKK), which are blaming each other for the monumental failure of the Kurdish project in Iraq and, probably more so, are arguing tirelessly for the sharing of what their corrupt political class can still hope to draw scarce resources and public funds that they still manage.
As for Barzani, completely discredited and disappointed, he submitted his resignation to the regional parliament.
It is difficult to see therefore, how the Kurdistan independence project could be revived, at least in the constitutional context of Iraq. Also, either this project can be considered buried for the next few years; or it is the context of crisis between Shiites and Sunnis that could revive it… if the crisis should degenerate and evolve towards the partition of the country.
Is the Iraqi state politically “rebuildable”?
Many reports have come to light which show that the Iraqi Sunni cities which were liberated from ISIS by the Iraqi army with the support of the Shia militias are feeling occupied by their “liberators”, as in Mosul, Fallujah, Tikrit…
Indeed, the exactions and “revenges” were numerous, from the Shiites (both militias and militaries, the Shiites being a majority in the Iraqi army since 2003) against the Sunnis, accused of having welcomed ISIS and then supported the jihadists in their war against the Iraqi army.
Testimonies are multiplying, denouncing the summary executions, tortures, arrests, disappearances suffered by Sunnis. Sunnis fear that they will be under Shiite “occupation” again, as it was between 2003 and 2014; but under a harder occupation, because of the reasons mentioned, but also because Iran (Shiite) helped the Shia militias of Iraq, sent Iranian fighters to Iraq and thus increased considerably its influence on the country. The Sunnis are therefore in a very weak minority situation and are probably the big losers of the war that is coming to an end.
What will be the reaction of the Sunnis? Are some groups preparing the resistance against the Shia domination in Iraq?
Despite the situation described, it seems that part of the Sunni population, satisfied with the disappearance of ISIS, hopes to find a compromise with Baghdad to restore trust between the two communities. This is the feeling that emerges when discussing this issue with people from the Sunni civil society.
However, some political Sunni figures try to promote the idea of a “Sunnistan”, and maybe for tribal goals.
One should also be wary of the “official” speeches that the interviewees (Sunnis) say, in front of journalists and openly. Many fear reprisals from the victors who now control the whole country. Thus, when we can have a private conversation with representatives of the Sunni population, in the towns and villages “liberated” by the Iraqi army, the remarks take a very different turn from the official version: the people we met present the litany of the exactions committed by the Shiites and hatred is expressed without restraint.
A “national reconciliation” … Is that a real goal for the Iraqi government?
Does the Iraqi government make a real reform to associate concretely the Sunni community or does the Shia community dominate definitively the State and the political and economic life?
This is the key question, because only a genuine willingness to involve the Sunni community in the government decision-making process could suggest the possibility of a national reconciliation and a more stable future for Iraq.
But it seems that it is not the intention of the current Iraqi government and the Shiite majority, to give up a single piece of this hard-won power. On the contrary, we have seen how the national unity proclaimed during the war against ISIS was only an illusion, created at the request of the United States. President Obama had indeed demanded the resignation of Prime Minister al-Maliki: his excessive pro-Shiite attitude, since 2003, left no chance for a process of reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis, expecting Sunnis to rebel against ISIS. A new Prime Minister had been appointed, Haider al-Abadi, who had to reshape the government by incorporating more Sunni figures. But it finally turned out that this facelift, which did not delude anyone in the Sunni community, did not change the reality of power and, especially Shiite rule in the military sector. In particular, Shia militias were formally integrated into the Iraqi army, dependent on the Ministry of Defense, and the militias receiving a state salary, a new fact which has significantly increased the Shia community’s weight in this key-sector.
However, the country is going to have general elections in 2018.The parliament has already announced the holding of legislative elections, the 12 of May 2018. It is the result of these elections, but even more the way it will take place, which will give the answer to the question asked: if the process takes place more or less democratically and if the victory of the Shiite parties does not lead to a coalition that would continue to monopolize the power to the detriment of the Sunni formations, Iraq would have a chance to rebuild itself as a nation-state. Otherwise, a separatist reaction could be expected from several Sunni movements who are already demanding a form of federalism and the revision of the constitution.
The endemic corruption of the Iraqi political class is another factor to explain the national disenchantment.
The major political parties should realize that the Iraqi people are unsatisfied with their zero achievements towards the population during the last fifteen years. Nevertheless, there is no chance the candidates who they’ll re-elect won’t be equally corrupted as in the past.
Those major political parties, which have the power, have taken steps to deceive the Iraqi voters. This include changing the name of the party and enlisting new figures in their electoral list to convince the Iraqi voters to vote for them. But they might be exactly the same in principal. The Iraqi people are now confused whether to participate in the elections or to refuse to participate claiming that the results are already predetermined. The major corrupted political parties will cling to power and divide the wealth among them. It is a fateful decision which cannot be predicted until the day of the elections.
The Iraqi Prime Minister Al-Abadi formed a political alliance which includes figures representing the entirety of Iraqis which encompasses the whole of the political spectrum for the next election. Al-Abadi is stuck in a critical position. It’s between Iran’s growing influence in Iraq and America’s rejection of the same influence.
However, Al-Abadi is trying to build a relationship which bridges all the countries in the region together, claiming this is key to Iraq’s security stability.
Baghdad, badly seated… Between Washington and Tehran
Between Washington and Tehran, the heart of Baghdad switches.
The collaboration between Baghdad and Washington was essential for the elimination of the Islamic State in Iraq: without the aviation of the international coalition led by Washington, the Iraqi army could not have defeated ISIS.
However, this relationship is about to end. Tehran, which has deeply implanted its influence in Iraq, in the context of the Iran-Saudi proximity war, has no intention of renouncing this major advance in the Arabian Peninsula, anchoring Iraq to Iran. But since the arrival of Donald Trump at the White House, relations between Tehran and Washington, which had relaxed under the presidency of Barack Obama (because of both the election of the “moderate” president Hasan Rohani and the Iranian nuclear agreement), have suddenly become envenomed again.
So, Baghdad will have to choose between his two enemy partners.
The question could be quickly settled: Trump gives full support to Riyadh, especially in the context of the war in Yemen, where the US Navy bombed the Houthis, Shiites population supported by Iran and attacked by a Sunni coalition led by Saudi Arabia; but also in Syria, where US special forces are fighting the interests of the government of Bashar al-Assad, Tehran’s ally. Trump also showed that he was fully aligned with Israel, and the case of the transfer of the United States Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem caused a stir.
It is safe to say that Baghdad will move away quickly from his ally of circumstances, and that Iraq will join Syria and the Lebanese Hezbollah in the Iranian side, and thus, indirectly, in the side of Russia.
Rebuilding Iraq: who will pay?
Iraq has a lot of natural resources to qualify for rapid advancement but the corruption in the country must be eliminated first. The Prime Minister announced that eliminating the corruption is his first goal if he is elected again by the voters. The coming elections will remain the final line to determine the country’s future.
If they are not empty words, a simple electoral strategy that will then be forgotten once the elections will be over, al-Abadi’s work will be strong and there will be many oppositions: The Prime Minister will face significant resistance and, in any case, the political cleansing and the economic recovery of the state that may ensue will inevitably take many years.
But Iraq needs today the necessary ways for its reconstruction. The years of war have destroyed much of the country’s infrastructures, but also many homes; and the people are waiting for immediate state support. Especially in the Sunni areas, where most of the fighting against ISIS took place.
If the state would respond quickly to this expectation, the Sunni community could consider Baghdad’s assistance as a sign of reconciliation and an evidence of a genuine concern to restore the well-being of all parts of the nation. On the contrary, if reconstruction is delayed for years, the resentment of the Sunni population towards the Shiites of Baghdad will only increase and tensions between the two communities will intensify.
This is the risk that international lenders, to whom Baghdad has addressed to present the bill of the war against the Islamic State, seem to want to take: the cost of the reconstruction is nearly 90 billion dollars, according to the United Nations. But the conference held in Kuwait in February 2018 to raise the necessary funds managed to mobilize only thirty billion; and Western governments have been rather stingy: only Turkey and, to regain some influence in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have shown a little more generosity. An aid that moreover, is not expressed in terms of donations, but mainly through loans at low rates… sums that Iraq, currently is not in a situation to repay.
If a civil war and the break-up of the country is perhaps a “disaster scenario” that will not be realized, it is however to be feared that the impoverishment and segregation of the Sunni community bring to the resurgence of the Islamic State, in another form, and of a more dangerous perhaps, a little bit forgotten but always present: al-Qaeda…
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A century after the Sykes-Picot Agreements, Iraq has never been so close to breaking up.
The episode of the Islamic State has only been a parenthesis in the tragedy that is played in Mesopotamia since a long time, and 2018 begins with a “return to square one”; a return to the post-2003 situation.
The state seems to be giving way to the force of conviction of the Shiite leaders and, without the voluntarism of the Shiite paramilitary organizations, perhaps the Islamic State could have kept its strongholds, and the northern Kurdish region would have been independent.
But how long can the Shiites of Baghdad maintain by force the status quo?