Ever since Saddam Hussein was ousted during the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, there has been sporadic talk of dividing the country. The nation is wracked by sectarian divisions between Shia, Sunni, and Kurds; tensions which were exploited and worsened by Saddam to cement his own grip on power. After he was ousted, these tensions came to the fore and Iraq descended into a bloody sectarian civil war in 2006-7; a war which has never really ended.
But instead of separating, the country has muddled along with a power-sharing arrangement imposed by the US. In this set up, powerful positions are reserved for different sectarian groups: by convention, Shias fill the post of prime minister, Sunnis of speaker, and Kurds of president.
But it has not been a functional arrangement, to say the least. Under Nouri al-Maliki, power has been centralized in the office of the prime minister, while majority rule means that Shia – victimized under Saddam – always dominate in parliament. There has been widespread anger and disillusionment among Sunni population, who feel they will never get fair representation. Protests by Sunni tribes people have been violently suppressed, providing the social space for the current Islamist insurgency to take root. Kurds – who were massacred under Saddam – have kept to themselves, with their semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq becoming a haven for investors even as the rest of the country remained mired in violence. They, too, have taken issue with Maliki’s federal government, accusing it of delayed and insufficient payments to the region.
Given this background, it is no surprise that talk of partition has resurfaced as the extremist group ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) has seized control of huge swathes of the country. Despite the fact that thousands are dying, that the country’s second biggest city and much of the land around it has fallen to militants, and that those militants have declared a new caliphate state spanning Iraq and Syria, parliamentarians were this week unable – or unwilling – to put aside their differences to form a new government. The Shia representatives did not put forward the name of their preferred candidate to replace Maliki, and Kurdish and Sunni elements withdrew their MPs. That means that the central government is an ineffective power vacuum, even as the country burns.
The latest push towards the partition of Iraq is being driven by the Kurds. Massoud Barzani, the president of the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, has asked MPs to form a committee to organize an independence referendum. He does not appear to have set a date yet, but previously told the BBC that a referendum was “a question of months” away. Across northern Iraq, the national flag is no longer flying; instead, the Kurdish national banner has been erected. Their territory has also expanded – during the current unrest, the Kurds took the city of Kirkuk after the Iraqi army fled from ISIS. The question of where the boundaries of an independent Kurdish state would lie is complicated and unlikely to be settled easily.
Kurds – in Iraq, but also in Turkey, Iran, and elsewhere – have long yearned for an independent state. But they have been cautious about furthering this aim. A referendum of Iraq’s 5 million Kurds in 2005 saw strong backing for independence, but this was not acted upon. Generally, talk of secession has been used as leverage against the central government. It seems now that, with radically changed facts on the ground, the Kurdish leadership is emboldened. In his interview with the BBC, Barzani said: “Iraq is effectively partitioned now; should we stay in this tragic situation that Iraq is living? Of course, we are all with our Arab and Sunni brothers together in this crisis, but that doesn’t mean that we will abandon our goal. I have said many times that independence is a natural right of the people of Kurdistan. All these developments reaffirm that.”
Many in the international community will oppose the bid for independence, as they do not want to see a fragmented Iraq. The US – which helped to set up the Kurdish enclave in 1991, by imposing a no-fly zone, and helped it to be formally recognised as an autonomous region after the 2003 invasion – has urged Barzani to stick with Baghdad for now, but clearly, his willingness to do so is wavering. Iraq’s regional neighbours Turkey and Iran, which also have substantial minority Kurdish populations, will also oppose the bid for independence, as they fear that it will stoke unrest in their own countries.
Of course, the new bid for Kurdish independence is just one ripple effect of the sudden and rapid rise of ISIS. But between those Kurdish national ambitions and the ISIS insurgency, the unity of Iraq and the power of the Baghdad central government are under severe pressure, that looks set only to increase.