Rethinking post-Mosul Iraq

Five assumptions about Iraq that the international community needs to abandon. By Marina Ottaway.
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July 3, 2014

“There is an Iraq before Mosul and an Iraq after Mosul,” officials of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have been repeating for the last several weeks. And they are right. The take-over of most Sunni areas of Iraq by ISIL (or by IS as it now prefers to be called) represents a paradigm shift. The old Iraqi state no longer exists and it cannot be restored in the same form.

Nowhere is the extent of the change more evident than in Kurdistan, of course. In the space of a few days, the KRG was able to realize its long-term goal of annexing the city of Kirkuk, its oil fields, and other Kurd-inhabited areas around its perimeter. De facto, Kurdistan is no longer part of Iraq. As officials in the region point out, Iraq is hardly a neighbor any longer. Kurdistan only shares a fifty-kilometer border with territory Baghdad actually controls, but a one thousand-kilometer border with IS-held territory. With control of the old Kirkuk oil fields and the new ones sprinkled all over (as well as a direct pipeline to Turkey,) Kurdistan is economically viable.

Change has been dramatic in other parts of Iraq as well. Large parts of the Sunni-majority provinces are now part of the caliphate proclaimed by IS on June 29, 2014. The caliphate as a functioning state is a figment in the imaginations of IS leader Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi, but it is no fiction to note that Baghdad no longer has a say in those provinces, that governors and members of the provincial councils have sought refuge elsewhere, and that the Iraqi government is no longer paying salaries of government employees. It is also true that urban centers are mostly controlled by a combination of IS cadres, tribal leaders, and former Baathists, unless they are battle zones like Tikrit. Finally, the border between Syria and Iraq has ceased to exist because IS controls all of the border posts.

The fighting so far has not touched the Shia majority provinces in the south of Iraq. Oil production and exports are continuing unhindered although some international companies have started to thin out personnel. There, provincial councils and governors are still in charge. But the balance of power among Shias has been affected by Maliki’s appeal to the dormant Shia militias to mobilize once again to protect Baghdad and the Shia holy places and provinces. Whether or not the militias can help the army stop IS, they are a new political force to be reckoned with. The largest of the militias, the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr, repeatedly challenged the government between 2004 and 2008 and was only brought under control, and officially disbanded, with the help of U.S. troops. It is difficult to imagine that this time the Mahdi Army and other militias will battle IS under the command of Iraqi army officers and then quietly disappear again.

Rethinking assumptions in post-Mosul Iraq

Many of the assumptions that have guided the international community’s Iraq policy since 2003 need to be re-examined in light of the new realities. Abandoning some of these assumptions is difficult because it also means acknowledging the failure of what the United States and other countries have tried to do for over a decade. Here are the five assumptions they need to be reconsidered most urgently.

Assumption 1: There is no purely military solution in Iraq, thus the formation of an inclusive government is key.

It is true that there is no purely military solution and that the narrow-based and corrupt Maliki government will never provide a political incentive for all Iraqis to come together against IS. But the assumption that a sufficiently inclusive government can be produced by the parties that competed in the April 30 parliamentary elections and have done nothing but squabble since needs to be discarded. The formal democratic process in Iraq has always been incredibly slow and ineffective and this must also be addressed. Above all, at present the political parties do not represent the political forces that need to be part of a coalition that might keep the country together or at least prevent IS from becoming permanently implanted. Distasteful as this may be, such political forces include, in addition to the various political parties, former Baathist officers, Sunni tribal militias, and Shia militias. Thus, the intense politicking taking place in Iraq concerning the choice of a new prime minister, president and speaker of parliament, let alone the forthcoming fights about which party controls which ministry, is largely irrelevant to producing an inclusive coalition.

Assumption 2: Maintaining the unity of Iraq is paramount to protecting the interests of Iraqis, the stability of the region, and thus the interests of the United States and its allies.

At this point, both the stability of the region and the unity of Iraq are fiction. The question that needs to be asked is whether stability could be restored more easily by trying to force unity on Iraqis at all costs or by accepting the post-Mosul reality. It is the same dilemma that confronted the international community in Yugoslavia and then in Bosnia. As in the Balkans, there are no easy or straightforward answers, but it is time to start thinking outside the unity box about what kind of architecture would serve everybody’s interests best—or least badly.

Assumption 3: Independence or autonomy within a loose confederation for Kurdistan is not a realistic option; no matter how much Kurds want it. Turkey will oppose it and Kurdistan is dependent on financial transfers from Baghdad.

Such assumptions are based on outdated information. Turkey’s position has evolved incredibly fast and so has Kurdistan’s financial situation, thanks to the rapid growth of the oil and gas industries. Presently, denying the KRG a pathway toward statehood is unrealistic if they are to play a role in removing IS from power in western Iraq.

Assumption 4: Sunnis are not interested in autonomy, they are the ultimate Arab nationalists and defenders of Iraqi unity.

Sunnis are not unanimous on this point, and there are plenty of indications that many are reconsidering the benefits of unity. The realization that Sunnis are a minority, just like the Kurds, and that by choosing autonomy Kurds have been more successful in protecting their interests has caused a political recalculation. Before the crisis, provincial councils of several Sunni-majority provinces voted in favor of forming semi-autonomous regions similar to Kurdistan and many more are likely to now given recent developments.

Finally, the most important assumption (number 5) to be discarded is that the “pre-Mosul Iraq” still exists.