Something is Rotten in the State of Iraq


The monthly death toll in May 2014 was Iraq’s highest since 2008. The year 2013 was the most murderous in five years. In late 2013, violence flared in western Iraq’s Sunni Anbar province, as fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and an assortment of local groups — Naqshbandis, Sunni tribes, ex-Ba’athists, and the like — angry at the repressive and marginalizing sectarian policies of Nuri al-Maliki’s government and the behaviour of its security forces in the region, rose in revolt. Around 300,000 people fled their homes, and towns such as Fallujah and Ramadi fell into the hands of the rebels. Elements of the government’s security forces also abandoned their posts and fled. Washington was not entirely indifferent, and it sped up the supply of Hellfire missiles and UAVs to Maliki’s sectarian armed forces.

But it has taken June’s dramatic fall of the heavily garrisoned Sunni Arab city of Mosul to ISIL fighters and their allies, the no less dramatic collapse of the largely U.S.-equipped, funded and trained Iraqi security forces, and the continuing advance of Sunni forces towards Baghdad and indeed into Anbar province, to have finally led Washington to the conclusion that something is rotten in the state of Iraq. Secretary of State John Kerry has ridden into town insisting that the Iraqis form a government of national unity in order to attract serious U.S. aid and repel the Sunni onslaught.

A government of genuine national unity that brings together the various sects and ethnicities to fight against a common threat is a thought that is as nice as it is unrealistic. If there is any chance that it could happen, Maliki must first go, although there is little sign that he is prepared to fall on his sword and every likelihood that his followers would resent him being forced to do so. In the wake of Mosul’s fall, Sunni Arab and Kurdish lawmakers mostly absented themselves from a parliamentary session that Maliki had hoped would grant him a state of emergency, seeing it, surely correctly, as a bid to finally establish himself as Iraq’s new dictator. Many of them, and some Shias too, had already indicated in the wake of the April election that they were no longer willing to acquiesce in his rule.

But it is arguable that even a coalition government sans Maliki is unlikely to have much genuine unity about it. Sunni politicians will be loathe at this juncture to align themselves — even if they can be leaned on to do so — with a predominantly Shia government relying on a primarily Shia security apparatus, Shia militias, and perhaps U.S. bombardment, to keep at bay the rich diversity of Sunni groups that fought their way to the gates of Baghdad. Their dilemma would be even worse if Tehran decides to adopt the role of Maliki’s cheerleader-in-chief, let alone were it to elect to contribute directly to the fight. This is a Sunni-Shia fight and Washington is at imminent risk of sliding down a slope that results in an American military contribution to the further humiliation of the Sunnis at the behest of the majority Shias and Iran. Many Sunnis already interpret Washington’s long-standing acquiescence in Maliki’s relentlessly divisive behavior in that way.

From Baghdad, Kerry flew to Erbil to pressure the Kurds to join the now so urgently and belatedly sought Iraqi government of national unity. This coincided with an intensification of U.S. pressure on the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) and on NATO ally Turkey not to sell on to world markets oil piped from the new Kurdish oil fields. These fields that have been largely developed by U.S. majors such as ExxonMobil and Chevron, and would have remained undeveloped if it had been left to Baghdad. The oil is piped to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, where three tankers have already departed and a fourth is being loaded. Washington and Baghdad regard this oil as belonging to Iraq as a whole, notwithstanding the KRG (and Turkish) interpretation of the Iraqi constitution that gives Erbil the rights to newly exploited oilfields. Washington’s concern is that the KRG’s bid for oil independence will encourage greater Kurdish independence and lead to a break-up of Iraq. It is now evident that Maliki’s government, which is purchasing F-16s from the United States in the face of a real Kurdish unease, has all along been the more imminent threat to Iraq’s capacity to hold together.

Kerry’s visit to Erbil also follows the full occupation of oil-rich Kirkuk and other territories by Kurdish peshmerga in the wake of the vacuum left by the fleeing Iraqi army. The Kurds have long claimed these territories as rightfully their own, and they are unlikely to give them up lightly. The 2005 constitutional promise that a census and referendum should be held in Kirkuk has been ignored by Baghdad, which has been under no noticeable pressure from Washington to do otherwise. This has embittered the Kurds, who trusted Washington enough to hand back Kirkuk in 2003, having made most of the effort to liberate it from Saddam’s forces. (Likewise for the 2010 Erbil agreement, brokered by KRG President Massoud Barzani and involving all the main Iraqi blocs.) In return for giving him the green light to form a government, it obliged Maliki to enter into power-sharing arrangements and to abide by the provisions of the constitution. He has done no such thing, and instead embarked on his personal, political and sectarian power grab.

In short, the Kurds have little reason to trust the promises of either Washington or Baghdad, and little stake in rescuing the Iraqi federal government from the consequences of its own incompetence, corruption, sectarian triumphalism and Arab nationalism. Furthermore, they have the KRG region to defend against jihadist attacks and internal sabotage, and their newly acquired territories to secure. Nor can Washington point to the bogeyman of Turkey, formerly the arch enemy of Iraq’s Kurds, but now their strategic ally. Indeed, a leading figure in Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party declared within days after the fall of Mosul and the Kurdish move into Kirkuk that “the Kurds of Iraq can decide for themselves the name and type of the entity they are living in.” Ankara has also agreed to supply the KRG with oil, in short supply, given the seizure of the Baiji refinery further south, and to tide Erbil over financially in light of Maliki’s withholding of Erbil’s share of the Iraqi national budget.

Although not quite the moment of Kurdish victory that some both inside and outside Kurdistan are pronouncing it to be, there is little doubt that the Kurds are holding a strong hand, for the time being at least. They are in a better position than ever to push forward their Kirkuk dream, a project that could give them eventual control over enough oil — perhaps as much as one third of Iraq’s total reserves — to give them complete economic independence from Baghdad. One doesn’t have to be starry eyed about the democratic deficiencies and corruption of Kurdistan to nevertheless note how ordered, secure, and economically dynamic the region is compared to the rest of Iraq, how unified its people, and how effective are its armed forces, despite the almost complete lack of support afforded it by Washington. There is widespread agreement between the parties that make up the Iraqi Kurdish political scene — primarily the Kurdish Democratic Party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and Gorran (Change) — that recent events have changed Iraq forever and that it offers great opportunities, as well as risks, for the country’s Kurds. It is hardly surprising that some pretty heady demands for independence have been emanating from Erbil over the past couple of weeks.

What then can Kerry do to win them over to the side of his proposed national unity government, and to persuade them to throw the peshmerga into the fray against ISIL forces? Certainly Erbil is now acutely aware that along with the acquisition of additional territory has come the acquisition of far more substantial Arab and Turkmen minorities than it has hitherto been obliged to contend with. They will need Ankara’s understanding with respect to the Turkmen, which they already appear to have, given Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu’s plea to the Turkmen that they keep their sectarian and national passions in check for the time being. They will also need to reassure Kirkuk’s Arab communities and Iraq’s Arabs more generally that majority Kurdish rule will not lead to the kind of marginalization and oppression that majority Arab and Shia rule has brought. the Kurds now find that along their entire border they confront Sunni rather than Baghdad-controlled forces. This is not as worrying to the Kurds as it might seem because they believe that the revolt is more a Sunni than an ISIL uprising and they have long been predicting it, and they claim, had their warnings ignored by Washington and Baghdad alike. They have also taken on responsibility for hundreds of thousands of refugees from both the Syrian and now the Iraqi conflicts, many but by no means all of them fellow Kurds. They will need help.

The KRG will struggle to prosper and enjoy stability should Arab Iraq descend into endless Syria-like chaos, or should its neighbouring Sunni Arab provinces fall firmly and exclusively into the hands of ISIL-type groups. Yet both scenarios are more than possible. ISIL’s activities straddle the Iraqi-Syrian border, and perhaps shortly the Jordanian one too, so the threat is in fact from a wider regional rather than a purely Iraqi anarchy. Here is where Washington and Erbil might find some grounds for mutual accommodation. Iraqi Kurdistan is the most pro-Western and stable part of Iraq and of the entire region. It forms a buffer for Turkey, a NATO ally, which has already come to see the virtues of economic, political and security cooperation with it. It is also oil rich. In short, it represents the best, in fact the only, basis for hope in Iraq, and one of the few rays of light in a deeply troubled region. It should be supported, both in its right to exploit its own oil resources and in its insistence that its claims over the disputed territories be properly addressed. Its armed forces should be better equipped and its economy protected from Baghdad’s spite.

This would not necessarily entail its full independence. Even Turkey might hold its breath at the prospect, and Iran could well act as a spoiler, unless perhaps handsomely compensated elsewhere. In any case, unlike their Shia and Kurdish counterparts, the Sunni Arabs have few resources within their homelands. Some kind of confederation that gives the Sunnis a cut of Iraq’s rich energy resources will surely be necessary if they are ever to be pacified. In the short term, if Kerry is to persuade the Kurds to come to the rescue of what is left of the state of Iraq, they will need to be offered a concrete and irreversible set of commitments that their grievances will not only be addressed, but reasonably met. However, it might already be too late to save Iraq from the consequences of the sectarian drift, corruption and power-hungry politics of the past near decade.

The more Iraq is doomed, the more Washington will need to wean itself away from its misguided commitment to Iraq’s centralized authority, and even its territorial integrity, regardless of the cost such a posture entails. Rarely has a country looked so ripe for fragmentation as does Iraq today. This is about as near as “doomed” as it is possible for a country to get. In the longer term, Kurdistan offers the better bet. It might be the only rump of a collapsed state of Iraq that has any prospect of moving ahead. Paradoxically, at this moment of extreme crisis, conceding greater Kurdish autonomy and capacity might also offer the last and only hope of bringing Iraq back from the brink. Saving Kurdistan is both a realistic and beneficial objective. Saving Iraq might be neither realistic nor, given the kind of Iraq that might be saved, especially worth the effort. This is a historic moment in the region’s affairs, and a crucial moment for U.S. policy. Will Washington prefer to back a sectarian faction or cynical and fragile coalition in its battle against the consequences of a disenfranchised minority, in the myopic belief that in so doing it is coming to the rescue of the Iraqi government? Or will it instead insist on a genuine rearrangement of Iraq’s way of doing politics and its power structures in the hope that something lasting might emerge from the chaos? The next few hours, days and weeks will tell. Not everyone is holding their breath.


Bill Park is a Senior Lecturer in the Defence Studies Department at King’s College London.