On June 30, after taking control of various cities in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), now known as the Islamic State (IS), declared an Islamic state and proclaimed its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as the Caliph of this new state. This is a new phase in the Iraqi conundrum. The tumultuous atmosphere in the country has already sparked debates regarding the possibility of it being divided into three states: A Kurdish state in the northeast, a Shiite state in the south, and a Sunni state in the middle with links to Syria. The heightened sense of divergence and the lack of a shared vision among Iraqi people have further weakened hopes for safeguarding a united Iraq much longer into the future.
Amid the disturbances caused by the IS, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) strengthened its political clout in the northern part of the country as the central government was collapsing, taking control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Gaining leverage over the central government and taking control of the long disputed city increased expectations among the Kurdish people for their ultimate goal of independence. Fittingly, Mr. Masoud Barzani, the president of the KRG, called for parliament to prepare for a “referendum on the right of self-determination.” Neighboring Turkey seems reconciled to the idea while the U.S. has warned against any hasty moves.
Even though different groups in Iraq are gearing towards various partition scenarios, this would not be the end of crisis either in Iraq or in the wider region. Boundaries, economic and social structures, political cultures, sharing of natural resources, and the impact of partition on regional and international politics would be some of the issues that would keep many busy for a long time, and the repercussions of Iraq’s dismemberment could take a long time to run in the Middle East. As it might bring further instability into an already volatile region, the U.S. seems rather reluctant to allow such a scenario to run its course.
Currently, the KRG is sharing its entire southern and western border with the IS, which creates a security problem for the Kurds. Until now, the Kurdish forces were able to defend several cities against the IS probing; yet the group has been strengthening its capabilities through the acquisition of new weapons systems. Without the support of the Iraqi army, protecting KRG territory against IS-led attacks in the long run might prove to be difficult.
The positions of the Sunni tribes are also complicated, since they face a dilemma between supporting either the extremist IS or another Shia-dominated government in Baghdad. While the silence of the Sunni tribes in the face of IS brutality stems from their desire to get rid of Nouri al-Maliki, who has fueled the sectarian division and increased dissatisfaction among Sunnis, most Sunni tribal leaders are clearly not willing to accept the self-declared leadership (or Caliphate) of the IS.
Under the circumstances, the way out, or at least part of the attempt, is to try to form an inclusive government that would allay some of the grievances of the Sunnis. However, while the Iraqi parliament met on Monday for the first time since the elections, its attempt to elect a speaker, the first step in the process of forming a government, ended in failure. At this point, the involvement of regional and international actors with various parties becomes crucial.
The mistrust and hostility resulting from the previous al-Maliki governments and its policies, as well as the unwillingness of Kurdish groups to compromise, acting out of their advantageous position, hamper the progress in forming a new government. What is needed is urgent international pressure on various actors to focus on government creation, as well as desperately needed confidence building measures in Iraq. Otherwise, we are coming towards the end of the Iraqi saga that was started back in the early 20th century.