Divide and heal

Despite the imminent formation of a government of national unity, Iraq is splintering into its three historic provinces. The break-up can be managed, but it cannot be avoided. The western powers and Iraqi nationalists must now accept that radical federalism is the only alternative to civil war
May 19, 2006

Sometime in the next few days or weeks, a government of national unity will finally be formed in Iraq. This rare piece of good news will briefly rekindle some of the optimism about the political future of a unified Iraq that followed last December's election. But the reality on the ground is that Iraq is breaking up. The Kurdish north is largely independent and Basra, capital of the Shia south, is increasingly falling out of Baghdad's orbit. Moreover, there is anecdotal evidence of significant population movement—with Shias leaving Sunni areas, Sunnis leaving Shia areas, and Kurds (and many professionals of all identities) moving north to the relative sanctuary of Kurdistan.

The partitioning, or rather radical decentralisation, of Iraq is under way. This should not necessarily be seen as a problem. Historical Iraq was a place of three semi-independent parts—Kurdish north, Sunni centre and Shia south—within the loose framework of the Ottoman empire. It is the centralised Iraq—starting with Britain's creation of the modern state in 1921-23 and reaching its nadir in nearly three decades of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship—that has failed and should be allowed to die.

There are, however, powerful forces refusing to contemplate partition or "hard federalism." The radical Shia movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr, emerging as one of the most powerful groups in Iraq, rejects federalism as a divide-and-rule tactic and defends Iraqi identity in traditional nationalist terms. Opposition among the Arab Sunnis who have traditionally dominated the state is even stronger. Whether radical Islamists, ex-Ba'athists or secularists, Arab Sunnis see federalism as undermining everything they have stood for in nearly a century of Iraqi history.

The coalition—especially the British—is also opposed to further decentralisation. On his recent visit to Baghdad Jack Straw refused to discuss with Kurdish officials the distribution of power between regions and the centre—and the British insist on talking about Kurdish areas rather than a distinct Kurdistan region of Iraq. US officials too are committed to the status quo, but a debate is starting in Washington about how to respond to the new realities. Peter Galbraith, former US ambassador to Croatia, recently said that "a break-up has already taken place," and hoped that the constitution's federal provisions would be effective enough to avoid a "Bosnia-type" war.

Even if an Iraq dominated by its regions does come to be seen as part of the solution rather than the problem, there are many obstacles in its path. Turkey is nervous about an even more independent Kurdish north, and Iran might come to dominate the Shia south. Partition would also change the geopolitical balance of the middle east in unpredictable ways and would be seen in many parts of the world as an egregiously colonial parting act: what imperialists can assemble they can also disassemble. Inside Iraq there is the question of whether extensive population movement would be necessary—especially in flashpoints like Kirkuk and Baghdad itself. There is also the question of whether the two areas that have oil—the Kurdish north and the Shia south—would distribute any proceeds to the Sunni centre. And would there still be a place for a national army in a semi-partitioned Iraq? If so, what authority would it be answerable to? If not, would that increase the possibility of conflict between the three new entities?

Before considering how the logic of radical decentralisation arises from Iraq's own history, and examining various scenarios for the country's constitutional future, an illusion must be dispelled: the idea that Iraq already has a functioning federal constitution. Iraq has great democratic achievements under its belt since 2003, but the truth is that there is no agreement in the constitution over the powers of the regions, the distribution of oil revenues, the deployment of military forces, the control of borders or the role of Islam, to name a few issues. Some optimists argue that the delay in the formation of a new government is evidence that Iraqis are forging a deal on these matters to last for generations. There is, alas, little evidence for this. It would be truer to say that the different ethnopolitical groupings are stockpiling arms and building alliances, in case they have to fight for their interests.

Iraq as a powerful central state has already been shattered. Whether as a result of Saddam's attacks on the rebelling Kurds and Shias after the first Gulf war, the quasi-independence of the north since 1991, the rise of political Shi'ism in the south, or the mistakes of the coalition since the 2003 invasion and its almost-total dependence on ethnic and religiously based groups to govern the country—there can be no going back. Kurdistan is already operating as if it were an independent country in all but name. The Kurdistan regional government (KRG) recently concluded deals with DNO, a Norwegian oil company, to investigate oil reserves near Dohuk, with the implication that the KRG, rather than the Iraqi government, would legally own any resources. There is also an attempt to break linguistically with Iraq—English is now being promoted as the second language in Kurdish schools and colleges, replacing Arabic. But more striking, perhaps, are the murmurings of secession in the south. Some leading Shias have begun to consider Basra as the capital of a southern region that would include Iraq's southern oilfields. One of the most prominent is Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the pro-Iranian Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq party (SCIRI). His views put him sharply at odds with his fellow Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr who has an Iraqi nationalist's deep suspicion of Iran.

The british invented Iraq as a modern state in the 1920s, but it had long existed as a decentralised federal entity within the Ottoman empire, known in Europe by its historic name Mesopotamia (and locally as al-Iraq). The three Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra developed in distinct but connected ways. Life in these provinces was focused upon their major towns (of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra) and each of them existed within separate geo-economic spheres. Mosul was linked with Anatolia, Baghdad looked west to Arab lands, and Basra had a "Gulf-centric" identity with connections to India. The past three years have seen the re-emergence of these regional identities: Kurdistan is the old Mosul province, the old Baghdad and Basra provinces are now nicknamed "Sunnistan" and "Shiastan" respectively.

In the aftermath of the first world war, the imposition in Iraq of a European-style centralised state clashed with local habits, as elsewhere in the former Ottoman empire. The empire is often seen as having fostered cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic societies. This is true, in the main, although Sunni-Shia tensions certainly existed in the old Iraq and Kurds remained isolated in their mountains. But the sociopolitical conditions that underlay the foundation of most European nation states could not be found in Ottoman Iraq—there was no dominant nation that came together to form a state. Meanwhile, the structure that the British imposed—a constitutional monarchy in their own image, based on strong control from the capital and negligible power to the provinces—was a radical change from a system that had worked well under the Ottomans. The idea that the British created Iraq is widely repeated, but inaccurate. They did, however, reinvent its internal structure.

The logic behind Iraq's new centralised structure made sense only from the perspective of the British. Chairing the Cairo conference in March 1921, Winston Churchill headed a "who's who" gathering including TE Lawrence, Percy Cox, Gertrude Bell and the Emir Faisal, son of the Sharif of Mecca and leader of the Arab revolt against the Turks. Churchill's main concern was to secure Mesopotamia from any threat from Turkey or Russia. For Bell, Cox and Lawrence, the objective was to ensure the accession of Faisal, their wartime ally. These priorities helped to implant the two main pathologies of the modern Iraqi state. The Cairo conference saw to it that the non-Arab Mosul province (Kurdistan) remained within the newly named and centralised state of Iraq because of its oil, because its inhabitants were Sunnis (from the British perspective, more trustworthy than Shias), and because its mountainous terrain provided the new state with natural defences. The conference also nominated Faisal as king, thus ensuring that Sunni Arabs continued to dominate the predominately Shia population, as they had in Ottoman times. Iraq was therefore constructed with a non-Arab minority, the Kurds, who objected to their inclusion in Iraq and to the failure to grant them their own state, and a majority Shia population that remained unimpressed with their Arab Sunni monarch and his British backers.

It was this dominance of the institutions of the state by one group that allowed the Ba'athist junta of 1968 and then Saddam Hussein to turn Iraq from an authoritarian state into a totalitarian one. Under Saddam, differences between and within communities were exploited as a means to divide and rule. Saddam's Arab Sunni clique committed acts of sectarian and ethnic aggression against the Shias and the Kurds, and inevitably inflamed the country's enduring sectarian and ethnic identities, as was seen in the aftermath of Saddam's defeat in the first Gulf war in 1991. With the government seemingly on the verge of collapse, a regional rebellion broke out in the Shia south and a Kurdish one followed in the north. Although both rebellions were quashed by Saddam's Republican Guard, the blueprint for the current surge of political Shiism and Kurdish nationalism had been written. The violence and the centrifugal forces we are witnessing in today's Iraq are the reckoning for the 30 years of war that the Sunni-dominated regime waged against the Shias and the Kurds.

Because modern Iraq was the creation of British imperialism, it has become a cliché to describe it as an "artificial state." But one should recall that under the Ottomans the three parts of Iraq had a long association. Moreover, all states are to some extent artificial constructs and nearly a century of existence has endowed Arab Iraq with some sense of national identity. Outside of Kurdistan, Iraqis today are almost unanimously loyal to such symbols of nationalism as their flag and their rather successful football team. Many historians claim that a regional identity existed before the state was formed, and that Iraqi nationalism grew and prospered during the 20th century—at least in the Arab communities, among whom anti-Iranian feeling also acted as a glue, especially during and after the Iran-Iraq war. For promoters of this secular vision of Iraqi nationalism, there has never been a sectarian problem in Iraq between Sunnis and Shias, and the ethnic problem with Kurds was the result of imperial meddling.

This appealing vision appears to have coloured the view of the US administration as it geared up to remove Saddam; it seemed genuinely to believe that an overriding sense of Iraqi unity would emerge following the dictator's demise. Perhaps a primary error made by both the US government and many western academics in the run-up to the war was the implicit belief that most people in the world are post-ethnic individualists, like Americans believe themselves to be. The continuing hold of ethnic and sectarian allegiances was underestimated. (Within academic circles, the focus upon ethnicity as a politically mobilising force has become unfashionable, often attracting the accusation of Orientalism or essentialism.) But the vision of a unified, secular Iraq existed mainly among the middle classes. Cosmopolitan Iraq could indeed be found in the urban spaces of Baghdad and other major cities, but beyond these narrow confines Iraqi identities remained conditioned by local colourings of ethnicity and confessional background.

The evidence for this emerged after Saddam's removal in 2003. Sectarian-inspired violence spread quickly, while the Kurds consolidated their autonomy. The exponents of the "one Iraq" thesis blamed coalition mismanagement for these developments. The occupiers may not have helped, but the reason for the drumbeat of civil war could be found in the particularist way that Iraqis began to identify themselves in the absence of a strong centre.

Federalist thinking in modern Iraq was pioneered by the Kurds. By the end of the 1990s, the freedom and independence of the Kurdish north meant that they could impose their federal agenda on most of the Iraqi opposition movements. But the fall of Saddam ushered in a wider debate about different federal models, in which Shia notions of administrative federalism clashed with the more ethnic definition of the Kurds.

Which of the many possible federal models does the Iraqi constitution mandate? The imprecise nature of the document—adopted by referendum in October 2005—makes it hard to say. It describes Iraq as being democratic, federal and representative. But it is difficult to pin down exactly how these ideals will be achieved. Kurdistan was "approbated" in the constitution and recognised as existing within the boundaries of the 1991 entity—which did not include any of the disputed territories, including Kirkuk. In addition, provision is made in section 5 of the constitution for new regions to establish themselves. The regional governments are held responsible for all domestic affairs that lie outside those assigned to the federal government, including the organisation of internal security forces, and regional guards (known as militias, or peshmerga in Kurdistan). The ownership of oil and gas reserves is vague, but the emphasis of article 109 upon the federal government's management of oil and gas from "current fields" has encouraged both the Kurds and Shias to believe that new fields would be the property of the region rather than the centre. Furthermore, the fact that article 117 places regional law above federal law (at least for those matters not designated as exclusively federal) again emphasises the extent of possible decentralisation. However, all of these federal provisions remain in question, and the constitution is flanked by several supplementary deals, such as the famous "Kurd veto," which remain shrouded in mystery and ambiguity.

If, however, those favouring a stronger national centre—above all Muqtada's Shias and the Sunnis—were to prevail in the constitutional debate, an attempt could be made to rein in the most independent regions—by disbanding their regional guards, for example. Such a development would antagonise the Kurds and the SCIRI-supporting Shias in the south and could encourage them to take matters into their own hands. The Kurds suspect that the current prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, does want to pursue a recentralisation strategy, with the support of Muqtada al-Sadr and the Arab Sunnis. But in its present state, the Iraqi army could not occupy Kurdistan —many of its most effective units are actually taken from the Kurdish peshmerga. Similarly, the well-organised and well-funded Iranian-backed Badr army of SCIRI is itching for an excuse to attack the more Iraqi nationalist forces of Muqtada al-Sadr and settle scores with other Shia militias. Even if al-Jaafari remains prime minister, it is unlikely that the Iraqi government will risk antagonising the two most powerful military forces in the country.

At the other end of the federal spectrum, and a novelty for the middle east, is the idea of Iraq as a confederal state with a weak central authority. Rather than Baghdad being the undisputed centre of what is seen by many Arab Sunnis as the heart of Arab nationalism, it would be the reduced administrative centre of a state in which the regions, and primarily Kurdistan and Shiastan, would be the real powers. Under these circumstances, no Iraqi military forces could be based in Kurdistan without consent from the Kurdistan national assembly; the boundaries with Turkey and Iran would be policed by Kurds answering to Erbil rather than Baghdad, and Kurdistan's new oil resources would be controlled by the KRG. (Whether Kurdistan's existing oil reserves would remain under the control of a weakened Baghdad would remain to be seen.)

A similar pattern could develop in the south, with SCIRI probably becoming the leading political force and its military wing, the Badr army, becoming regional guard. Control over the oilfields of the south would be a source of dispute between Baghdad and Basra, but it is unlikely that force could be exerted on such a strong region, with a committed political leadership and capable military, from a weakened centre.

Political leaders in both the north and the south realise that they must tread carefully to reach their decentralising goals, and they also realise that there are some advantages to a residual central Iraqi state—a large single market, more clout on the international stage and so on. Nonetheless, the radical decentralisation scenario is the more likely of the two, if only because one of the confederal entities, Kurdistan, already exists. The momentum behind the formation of a Shia entity in the south remains strong, although it may, at least temporarily, have been slowed by falling electoral support for the pro-Iranian, pro-decentralisation SCIRI party. SCIRI is thought to have won around 20 per cent of the votes in the December election for the main Shia coalition, the United Iraqi Aliance, considerably less than the 35 per cent for the parties backing Muqtada al-Sadr. SCIRI, however, remains a force, and it still controls nine out of 11 councils in the south. This pattern of support and influence helps to explain why SCIRI is keen to build up power at the regional level while Muqtada is happy to consolidate the centre.

The push for a strong federalism, as with attempts at recentralisation, could trigger serious conflict. The stand-off over the premiership of Ibrahim al-Jaafari suggests that this is a real possibility. If the Kurds and SCIRI succeed in ousting him from power as a first step towards a looser Iraq, this could galvanise those opposed to federalism into an Arab nationalist bloc willing to take up arms in order to prevent what would be perceived as an existential threat to Iraq. In this eventuality, different Shia militias would turn on each other, particularly in Basra and Baghdad, with Arab Sunni insurgents also heavily involved.

The Kurdish parties, meanwhile, would seize the opportunity to secure their hold on Kirkuk, where they would face a challenge from Shia Turkmen and Arab Shia followers of Muqtada al-Sadr. And if the Kurdish leaders were to go as far as claiming all the disputed territories—a broad arc that runs from Syria to the Iranian border, including Sinjar, Makhmour, parts of Mosul, Tuz, Kirkuk, Khanaquin and Mandali—then serious fighting would break out between local communities and Kurdish liberators/ occupiers. Many of these areas contain significant non-Kurdish populations, who, especially in the area of Mosul, would react violently towards any threat to Iraq's integrity. A similar pattern could be expected in the south of the country, except that there would also be a strong possibility of internal Shia conflict in addition to conflict between Sunnis and Shias.

History may suggest that a loose confederation of three semi-autonomous statelets is the best long-term solution for Iraq. If the three main groups cannot even agree on a mild form of federalism then the status quo will not hold for long. But if they cannot agree on a modest federalism they are unlikely to agree on a more radical untangling and, as we have seen, recentralisation is also not a realistic option. The best hope for a resolution is to convince some of the main opponents of a looser federation, in particular Muqtada al-Sadr, that it is in their interests. This is not impossible in the case of Muqtada. He has said that he is not against federalism in principle, but as an Iraqi nationalist he is suspicious of too much Iranian influence in the south. If, however, Muqtada's party started to eclipse SCIRI in the south, his interest in federalism might increase.

But even if the coalition and a big figure like Muqtada are converted to federalism, there are still some large obstacles to overcome. Opponents of decentralisation often point out that nearly all of Iraq's urban centres have heterogeneous populations. Hard federalism could speed up the ethnic-sectarian population movement that is already under way, creating flashpoints where populations are most mixed, including in Kirkuk, Mosul and Baghdad, in addition to the scores of smaller towns and settlements across the centre of the country. Since the fall of Saddam, Baghdad's dominant Sunni identity has been increasingly challenged by the Shias of Sadr City. And a similar potential confrontation awaits in Kirkuk. Should Baghdad and Kirkuk be given some sort of special status within a federal structure? It is an attractive idea but will not be popular with the dominant groups in those cities.

The oil issue, by comparison, looks less serious. Some Kurdish and Shia politicians view federalism as a means to seize control of their local oilfields and make up for the decades during which the Sunnis benefited disproportionately from the oil revenues. However, looking around the world it is unusual for regions to hang on to oil revenues when they are part of states, even decentralised ones. The compromise that seems to be emerging is that revenues from old oil will remain nationally distributed, but revenues from new oil will stay in the region where it is found.

Another consideration is the reaction of Iraq's neighbours. The main concern of Turkey, Iran and the Arab states is instability in Iraq. If they are persuaded that radical federalism will reduce violence and disorder then they will be less hostile. For Iran, the loosening of Iraq has much to be said for it. It not only removes a threat to Iran's western border, but also presents an opportunity for Iran to reassert its influence in the spiritual centre of Shi'ism—much to the irritation of the US. It is not just in Shiastan that one would expect to see strong Iranian influence. Already in Kurdistan, Iranian companies are investing heavily along the border, especially in Suleimaniyah, and the ethnically-based link between Kurds and Persians is openly spoken about in both places with pride.

Turkey is, of course, hostile to any independence for the Kurdistan region. However, Turkish companies have already invested $1bn there and its military and intelligence services work closely with those of the Kurdistan Democratic party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. And given Turkey's desire to secure EU membership, it will be hard for it to oppose a people demanding self-determination. Turkey's opposition to Kurdistan will not be enough on its own to stop it.

The belief that Saddam's regime was the glue that held together the fragmented mosaic of Iraq has proved to be true. It is now too late to resurrect a strong centre. New political forces have emerged with strong localised support and the ability to project power far more effectively than the nascent institutions of the new Iraqi state. These forces also have very different ideas as to how Iraq should be constructed and what it will mean to be an Iraqi in the future. For the Kurds, the problem is the legitimacy of the state itself. For the Shia, it is the nature of the state. In an ideal world, the Kurds would secede, with or without Kirkuk, and even without oil if it meant establishing their own state. Kurdish politicians are caught between satisfying a realist position in Baghdad and representing an increasingly noisy secessionist voice in the north. This Kurdish disenchantment with Iraq has not gone unnoticed among the two main Arab groups and it is increasingly common to hear the refrain, "let them leave if they wish to, but not with Kirkuk." Until an Arab-dominated Iraqi army is in a position to attempt to bring the Kurds back into Iraq, there will be little fighting in the north. For that reason, a Quebec-like asymmetrical decentralisation—in which the Kurdish region opts out of the Arab Iraqi state for most purposes—is likely to be officially recognised at some point soon.

The nature of the dispute between Sunnis and Shias is much more complex, as it is about who controls the narrative of the Iraqi state—what it means to be an Iraqi. For most of the 20th century, the narrative was one of Arab Sunni nationalism. Now, the Shia are struggling to win it back. The real struggle is in Baghdad and it is imbued with the symbolism of ancient religious disputes from the formative years of Islam itself. The struggle is further complicated by the fact that whereas Shiastan has resources, a relatively homogeneous population and a political leadership with some legitimacy, none of this can be said of Sunnistan—the most unstable part of Iraq.

The re-emergence of ethno-sectarian identities in Iraq should not have taken policymakers or academics by surprise. The Soviet collapse, for example, led to the intensification of ethnic conflict in several successor states, including Georgia, Moldova and Azerbaijan, and changes in the ethnic balance of power in Yugoslavia quickly heralded that state's demise. Iraq is mirroring this pattern closely.

America and Britain still have some influence over events. We need to consider the most realistic and appropriate options still available. The return to a looser form of the Iraq state is a difficult process that requires careful management. If it can be achieved with little bloodshed and disruption, it will be a great prize. The alternative seems to be break-up by a long, low-level civil war—which would be a stain on the western conscience for decades to come.