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Iraq: Can Unity Be Restored To A Fractious Country?

Al Khulafa historical mosque in Baghdad

Last October, the battle for Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq began. In March of 2017, there is little doubt that the metropolis, will soon be retaken from ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria). This final engagement spearheaded by the Iraqis military,will effectively end the caliphate of ISIS, which was declared just two years ago.

As the war against the ISIS jihadis winds down, the next challenge will be to restore a fractious country, that has never been so divided. The military forces that converged on Mosul, somewhat gives a glimpse of what lies ahead for Iraq.

An Iraqis force of some 30,000 has converged on Mosul, supported by special forces from the United States. In addition, there is air cover being provided by France, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Tigris, a bridge and Grand Mosque in Mosul

Flanking this main contingent, is various militias just as eager to eject ISIS from the last occupied portions of the country. These include Kurdish Peshmerga, a number of Sunni Arab tribal fighters, Shia units backed by Iran and the Turkish trained, private army of the former governor of Mosul.

Once Mosul is liberated, these groups will begin to diverge from their common objective and move towards pursuing their own interests once again.

Of the total population of 36 million, the worst division will remain between the Shia majority at 65%, concentrated in the southern part of the country and the Sunni minority. The latter is to be found amassed, in the center and more northern parts of Iraq. They comprise near 35% of the citizenry.

It is estimated that 75% to 80% of the country is Arabic, with the next largest group being the Kurds. At 15%, they have stubbornly resisted repeated efforts, to have their identity submerged by the central government.

The remaining 5% to 10% are comprised of Assyrians, Iraqi Turkmen, and even small groups of Armenians, Circassians, Iranians, Kawliya, Mandeans, Shabakis, Yazidis and 20,000 Marsh Arabs, living in the Tigris and Euphrates delta.

No longer counted as part of the total population of Iraq, is the more than two million refugees that now live outside the country. Near 95% of these still reside in the Middle East, mostly in the neighboring nations of Egypt, the Gulf States, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Syria and Turkey.

U.S. Army soldier with captured ISIS flag in Iraq.

Some of the Shia militias have persecuted Sunni civilians fleeing ISIS, with the explanation that they may well be traitors. These types of brutal policies do not bode well for a future Iraq.

The Shia and the Sunni are united however, in their opposition to the increasing levels of autonomy exhibited by the Kurds. Although the Kurdish government makes no territorial claim on Mosul, they have expanded their reach, into the oil rich area of Kirkuk.

There are over 8 million Kurds, living in Iraq and they have definite control over the northeastern portion of Iraq. It is the only region of the country that has formal autonomy.

The Ottoman Empire at its greatest extent in Europe, under Sultan Mehmed IV.

If there is one issue that unites the official governments of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey is to prevent the Kurdish populations in all four countries, in achieving a geographical linkage. If this happened, it would be the next step in the creation of a Greater Kurdistan.

It was a dream that the Western allies failed to provide, in the peace conference following World War I in 1919. Britain and France the victors in the Middle East, had many competing interests to contend with. The Ottoman Empire was to be dismantled, but the Kurds despite earlier promises, were to be denied their own country.

In total, there are estimated to be at least 28 million Kurds, residing in the aforementioned nations.

Iraqis Kurdistan on Map of the Middle East.

It partially explained the move by Turkey, in establishing a military base in Iraqis territory outside of Mosul at Bashiqa. The Turkish army is determined to prevent the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgency in southeast Turkey, from having an opportunity to further cooperate with the Kurds across the border in Iraq.

The government of Turkey has ordered troops into northern Syria, in a similar effort. This buffer zone helps prevents ISIS from staging attacks on Turkey and also stops cross border activity, among different Kurdish groups.

Haider al-Abadi Prime Minister of Iraq since 2014.

Iraqis Prime Minister Abadi will attempt to restore, the former power sharing agreement that existed, before the invasion of ISIS in 2014. This effort to date, has failed.

There is already a dispute over the way Mosul will be governed, once the city is totally liberated. A power vacuum will of course exist, immediately after ISIS is evicted.

The Sunnis living in Mosul, will no doubt push for greater autonomy. The constitution of the country allows for this, but the central government has never permitted it to occur. However, even if this does come about, the factions within the city will have to cooperate for a functional political system to exist.

There are many that fear if ever more regions of the country are allowed self government, the country will eventually disintegrate.

At the same time, there has been a level of cooperation between Kurdish forces and the Iraqis military. If this can be maintained once ISIS is defeated, it can be used as a springboard for further strengthening of ties.

The Iraqis army has been careful not to encroach on Kurdish controlled territory. In return, the Peshmerga have pledged not to enter Mosul proper.

The Kurdish government has no desire to repeat the huge mistake made in 2003. Kurdish forces took advantage of the American invasion of Iraq, to wrest control of Mosul from the Sunni Baathists. They then proceeded to plunder the wealth of the city. After that, trying to govern Mosul became impossible, because the population was now hostile to Kurdish rule.

Kirkuk, Iraq

The Kurds has far more pressing concerns, at present.

In August of 2016, the central Iraqis government in Baghdad made an agreement, with the Kurds concerning Kirkuk. Since the city has a large Kurdish population, it was agreed to let the Peshmerga provide security and keep the area under control by Erbil, the Kurdish capital.

The two governments were also in agreement, to share the oil revenues from the local production evenly.

In a further stipulation, the central government will pick up the cost of the large Kurdish bureaucracy. Before the August deal, the Kurds where only able to pay about 50% of the outlays necessary, for their civil service.

Iraq on a Global Map.

The lower international price for crude oil, had forced the Kurds to make an accommodation with the authorities in Baghdad.

In addition, there was finally a sharing of Western provided weaponry. Previously even armaments earmarked for the Kurds, was held up by authorities in Baghdad.

In another move for reconciliation, Kurdish officials are now included in international summits.

These comprises may well stave off the drive for full independence, for the autonomous region of Kurdistan. Both the central government in Iraq and the neighboring countries with their own large Kurdish populations, would prefer to prevent the emergence of separate country for Kurds.

Nouri al-Maliki
Former Prime Minister of Iraq from 2006 to 2014.

The largest outside threat to a unified Iraq remains the Shia militias, that are under control of various Iranian entities. These groups are working with Iranian sympathizers, including the former Prime Minister of Iraq Nouri al-Malaki.

It is in the interest of the government of Iran, to keep Iraq divided and weak.

To combat these elements the United States, its European allies and more local neighbors, will have to provide ongoing support to the unstable Iraqis government.

The problem for Western powers is that democracy in its true form, will not serve their foreign policy interests. Allied with Turkey through NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), their governments must oppose an independent Kurdistan for example.

Erbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan

The various ethnic groups and sects of Iraq need to find a way to share power. The only likely way forward, is to permit a federal type system of government, to replace the more centralized form that is presently in place.

Keeping Iraq as a unified country even if political and economic power is diffused, will not be an easy task. The centrifugal forces against a primal authority, will be difficult to overcome.

Iraqi refugees in Damascus, Syria.

Iraq as a whole, is facing an economic crisis as a result of lower international crude prices. The wider public has little understanding,of the need to cut government spending. Cutting public sector jobs or reducing salaries, will likely result in mass demonstrations and political obstructionism in the Parliament.

Current government spending levels are totally unsustainable, in an era of lower oil prices.

Oil revenues are only covering about 50% of the present government expenditures, for public service jobs and pensions. This in turn, has lead to a massive increase in deficit spending and government debt.

Growing corruption is simply magnifying, these fiscal and economic problems.

Finally, the divisions of the past and the horrible memories of violence and injustice among the citizenry, that span some 30 years of war, will be hard to put aside in a new Iraq.

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