Can Iraq be Fixed?

Iraq’s new prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, faces the enormous task of uniting the country. But whatever the outcome, Iraq cannot be restored to how it was before the summer.

There is broad agreement that the former Iraqi prime minister, Nour al-Maliki, was a part of the problem, and that his replacement by Haider al-Abadi is a positive development. But the attacks in August, on Shia and Sunni mosques respectively, show once again that Iraq’s problems are systemic.

Kurdish Peshmerga on a T-55-Tank outside Kirkuk in Iraq. Photo: Boris Niehaus. CC BY-SA 3.0

For several years Iraq has ranked among the world’s most failed states, alongside countries such as Somalia, Chad and Yemen. These states are unstable because of deep-rooted structural problems. In the case of Iraq, Nour al-Maliki may have been a rotten apple, but all the other apples in the barrel are rotten as well.

The Islamic extremists who call themselves Islamic State (IS) have exploited Iraq’s weakness with brutal efficiency, further eroding the power of the state. Currently IS is operating in an area that extends eastwards from Aleppo, in war-torn Syria, to Mosul, 500 kilometres away on the border with Iraqi Kurdistan, and southwards to Falluja, which is close to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.

A combination of US air support and Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces has forced IS back for the time being, but IS is attracting increasing numbers of recruits and Iraq’s political problems will not be resolved by military means. What should the new Iraqi prime minister al-Abadi and his government do?

If al-Abadi’s objective is to weaken support for IS among Sunni Muslims, he first of all needs Kurdish support to get the country back on its feet. A functioning state would give al-Abadi something to offer Iraq’s disillusioned and marginalized Sunni Muslims, who currently see the emergent IS as a preferable ally to the faltering Iraqi state. Such a strategy would also demonstrate to Sunni Muslims that it is possible to decentralize political power from Baghdad.

Asking the Kurds to participate in rebuilding the Iraqi state, however, is no straightforward matter. The Kurds have dreamed of independence ever since World War I, and their political demands will be predicated on future independence.

The relationship between Iraq’s central government in Baghdad and the Kurds in the period between 1960 and 1991, when the Kurds were granted limited autonomy, can be summarised as follows: when the Iraqi government has been weak, it has recognised Kurdish rights and acceded to Kurdish demands; but when the Iraqi government has been strong, it has done everything in its power to crush the Kurdish opposition. The latter situation was exemplified by Saddam Hussein’s campaign of genocide and forced migration, which left 80 per cent of Kurdish towns and villages in ruins. At that time the Iraqi state was strong, while the Kurds were weak.

Now the situation is reversed. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) is stronger than ever. The Kurds have acquired friends other than the mountains, where the Kurds repeatedly sought refuge until 1991, and the KRG has taken advantage of a rare combination of political stability and oil wealth. Of the many milestones in Kurdish development since 1991, 12 June 2014 is one of the most important. In the course of a couple of hours, Kurdish soldiers captured Kirkuk, which had previously been controlled by Baghdad, when Iraqi soldiers fled in panic from an IS attack. The Kurds haved aspired to control of Kirkuk – a geo-strategic trump card – for over half a century.

Nonetheless, this success does not mean that the Kurds are ready for independence in the immediate future. The KRG does not have enough political support, either internationally or regionally, to declare independence. This is because Iraq, like some American banks, is “too big to fail”. For reasons having to do with security and energy policy, from both an international and a regional perspective, it is desirable for Iraq to remain a single entity. Iraqi oil should be pumped out onto the global market and Iraqi soldiers should comprise a military front against IS in order to prevent the further destabilization of the region and its transformation into a platform for international terrorism. Iraq’s neighbours are also fearful that their own Kurdish populations will follow the KRG’s example if the latter breaks free.

Aside from these political considerations, the KRG does not have the military or economic strength to stand on its own feet between problematic neighbouring states such as Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. The latter is the least hostile to Kurdish independence, mostly because a KRG that was would be independent of Bagdad would be dependent on Ankara. How else would the KRG be able to export its oil? Where else would it source food imports, now that Kurdish oil is flowing while ancient Kurdish agricultural land is lying fallow?

Even if the Kurds do not have a strong enough hand to declare independence, they hold enough cards to negotiate more favourable conditions for continuing to be part of Iraq. Under al-Abadi’s leadership, the Iraqi government is likely to concede to three Kurdish demands in the coming months. None of these concessions will be popular in Southern Iraq.

  • Firstly, the government will have to guarantee that in the future Baghdad will give – as is constitutionally required – 17 per cent of Iraq’s oil revenues to the KRG, without any further delays and broken promises.
  • Secondly, the Baghdad government will have to accept officially the KRG’s right to export oil bilaterally, and also end the sanctions it has imposed on buyers of Kurdish oil.
  • Thirdly, the Baghdad government will have to agree to the holding of local UN-supervised referendums in the immediate future in areas under dispute between the Kurds and Iraqis, including the oil city of Kirkuk. In addition, the government will have to agree that these areas will be transferred to KRG control where this accords with the results of the referendums. The UN will also play a key role in negotiating the official borders between Iraq and Kurdish territory.

If the Kurds are successful in obtaining these demands, they will probably lend their support to a united Iraq for the time being. In the short term, this would be a step towards a political solution to the national discord. It would also contribute towards a military solution to the Islamists’ spectacular offensive, provided that Kurdish and Iraqi forces could work together to form a united front.

In the long term, time would then be on the Kurds’ side, since they would be able to build up their own oil revenues and defensive forces. Ironically, therefore, the key factor in achieving national unity now, is allowing the fragmentation of the Iraqi state later. This means that neither Iraq nor the Middle East will be as they were before the summer.

See also this blog post: Nationalism Under Pressure.

This text was published in Norwegian in Dagsavisen Nye Meninger 29 August: Kan Irak fikses?
Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext

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