Ever since Sunni Islamic militants occupied much of northern and western Iraq, threatened Baghdad and proclaimed a new caliphate, the world has been grappling with the possibility that the Iraqi state may disintegrate along sectarian and ethnic lines — with Iraq’s Kurdish minority leading the way.
Such a breakup would fundamentally redraw the map of the Middle East imposed by French and British imperialists after World War I. It would almost certainly result in a new nation ignored in the colonial carve-up: Kurdistan.
Despite strong support for independence among most Kurds, significant obstacles remain to a final break with Iraq. For that reason, many analysts argue the most realistic scenario would be greater autonomy for the Kurds, who already enjoy significant self-rule. This would mean transforming Iraq into a confederation with three constituent regions — a Kurdish state in the north, a Sunni entity in the west and center, and a Shiite region in the center and oil-rich south of the country.
“It’s one thing for the Kurds to dream of (independence), another to face the cold hard realities of it,” said a senior Western diplomat in Baghdad. “It is costly being independent, your neighbors have to accept it and there has to be cohesion with the community.
“None of these are given here,” said the diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is so sensitive.
And in an indication that Iraq’s political system remained alive despite the chaos unleashed by the fundamentalist Islamic State offensive, the country’s feuding political parties came together in parliament on Thursday to elect a Kurdish politician as the country’s new president.
“The ability of Iraq’s various ethnic and sectarian political actors to elect a president … despite the ongoing (Sunni militant) offensive, belies claims of the demise of the Iraqi nation,” the geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor said in a report Thursday.
“The Kurds are seeking as much autonomy as they can get and the Sunnis are in rebellion, meaning that Iraq — a federal entity on paper — will largely behave as a confederation over time,” Stratfor predicted.
Since the withdrawal of the last U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, tensions between the central government headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Sunni and Kurdish minorities have been on the rise, with the Kurds pressing for more autonomy and the Sunni minority feeling marginalized after dominating Iraqi politics for generations.
The revolt by Islamic State militants from the Sunni community and Kurdish moves to seize oil fields around the disputed city of Kirkuk following the collapse of the Shiite-dominated Iraqi army show that Baghdad no longer controls those regions.
Since then, Kurdish leaders and some analysts have argued that full independence for Iraqi Kurdistan is now inevitable and that what they consider righting a historical wrong would have a stabilizing effect on the region.
“It’s not that the Kurds are leaving Iraq. It’s that Iraq has left the Kurds,” said Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. diplomat and one-time adviser to the Kurdish Regional Government.
The Kurdish region of northern Iraq, which borders Iran, Syria and Turkey, already has its own government, parliament and security force — the peshmerga. The region has about eight million inhabitants, approximately a quarter of Iraq’s population. It has enjoyed near total independence since Saddam Hussein withdrew his forces from the area after his defeat in the 1991 Gulf War and the U.S. and its allies set up a no fly zone over Kurdish territory.
Unlike the demoralized, U.S.-trained Iraqi army that crumbled under the Islamic State onslaught, the peshmerga remained firm and quickly took up positions abandoned by the fleeing troops, including suburbs of Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul, most of which is in extremist hands.
“The real point is that Iraq has already collapsed as a state,” Galbraith told Stars and Stripes. “Iraq’s army used to have 17 divisions, but only two are left now.”
Galbraith said partitioning the country into a Kurdish state in the north, a Sunni one in the west and middle and a Shiite one in the south, is the only solution that makes sense. “There are now Shiite religious parties, Sunni religious parties and Kurdish parties, and none see Iraq as their country anymore,” he said.
Iraqi Kurdish leaders also have taken up the message that after the dramatic defeats of the past several weeks, the Iraqi state cannot be glued back together.
“I don’t think Iraq can stay together again after (the fall of) Mosul,” Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of the autonomous Kurdish region, said in a BBC interview. “It’s almost impossible.”
Earlier this month, top Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani proposed a referendum on Kurdish independence. He also visited Ankara and held talks with Turkish leaders to discuss plans for the ballot, which most observers believe would result in an overwhelming vote for independence.
Ever since the U.S. and its allies toppled Saddam in the 2003 invasion, Kurdish politicians have threatened to declare full independence. That strategy has won significant concessions from Washington and Baghdad — even though the Kurds never played the full independence card.
Even Turkey, which had vehemently opposed Iraqi Kurdish independence for fear it would encourage Turkey’s own Kurdish minority, has warmed to the notion of a Kurdistan with significant autonomy if not full independence. Turkey has already forged extensive commercial ties to Iraqi Kurdistan to the irritation of the central government in Baghdad.
Ankara is ignoring warnings from Iraq’s government that all contracts governing oil and natural-gas revenue must be approved by Baghdad and is considering an energy deal with Iraqi Kurdistan.
“Turkey appears to have now fully thrown its lot with Iraqi Kurds in their struggle with the Baghdad government,” said Tulin Daloglu a columnist for Al-Monitor, a major Middle Eastern news website.
Despite some support for Kurdish independence in the U.S. Congress, the possibility that Iraq may disintegrate has raised alarm in Washington and other world capitals for fear this could lead to a wholesale political unravelling of the Middle East.
Instead, the Obama administration supports a united Iraq with a federal system that devolves more power to regional authorities and their own security forces, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Brett McGurk said. “This model of functional federalism is feasible and necessary,” he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and Kenneth Pollack, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, also maintain that a united Iraq with significant power transferred to the regions remains the best option for the country.
“Partition is still likely to be difficult, bloody and a long time in coming,” they wrote in a joint op-ed piece in the New Republic. “There is a dangerous mythology taking hold in Washington that partition might be easy because Iraq has since been sorted out into neat, easily divided cantonments. That is false.”
Iraq’s neighbors also have reacted negatively to the prospect of Kurdish independence. Syria and Iran fear that their own Kurdish minorities will try to follow suit. Others, including Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel, fear the breakup of Iraq would leave an impoverished Sunni mini-state affiliated with terrorist groups close to their borders. At the same time, they worry that any Iraqi Shiite state controlling the oil-rich south would be dominated by their archrival Iran.
And al-Maliki and other Shiite politicians emphatically oppose full Kurdish independence. Baghdad continues to block Kurdish attempts to attain energy independence by threatening to sue any foreign company that bypasses Iraq’s central government in signing oil deals with the Kurds.
”I think a declaration of independence is a less likely scenario at this time,” said Jacqueline Hazelton, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College. “The potential costs are higher than not doing so and there is no great reward in sight.”
Hazelton, who stressed she was not speaking for the college, said a declaration of independence would do nothing to facilitate oil sales, and would alienate the Kurds’ allies, Turkey and the United States.
“As things stand now, the Kurds have increased leverage within Iraqi politics because of their role in pushing back against (the Islamic militants),” she said. “I‘d expect the Iraqi Kurds to use that leverage to try to finally get a deal more to their liking on oil exports and revenue sharing.”