The Case Against Centralization in Iraq

In the past, some US policy makers extended limited calls for the partitioning of Iraq. Senator Joseph Biden in 2006 promoted the idea of a Sunni, Kurdish, and Shia state in Iraq. The pro-Kurdish former US diplomat Peter Galbraith also argued for partition in 2006. But the official US policy under the Obama administration eventually crystallized in support of a strengthened central authority under Iraqi PM Nouri al Maliki, which led to the de-facto partitioning of Iraq. After the US troops left Iraqi soil in 2011, the Iraqi PM issued an arrest order for Sunni vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi, and managed to push the Sunnis into the arms of the Jihadist Islamic state (IS). In a piece written for Foreign Affairs, Nicholas Sambanis and Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl, argue that reviving the idea of partition in Iraq would neither yield cooperation against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) nor a cessation of sectarian violence. But given the structural failures endemic to Iraq’s sectarian-based politics, the centralist policies of a Shia-dominated Baghdad resulted in the dominance of one religious sect over the others, the rise of the Islamic state (IS) after a crackdown on Sunni protests in December 2014, and more calls among Kurds and Sunnis for more autonomy. Thus, centralist policies could eventually have an opposite effect.

In fact, it was not the policies of partition leading to violence, but the policy of upholding the sovereignty and territorial borders through a strong central state dominated by one ethnic or religious sect.

Although partitioning Iraq or Syria on a Balkan-like model sounds unrealistic, the authoritarian and sectarian policies of Bashar al-Assad and former Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki led to the de facto partitioning of both Iraq and Syria. In fact, it was not the policies of partition leading to violence, but the policy of upholding the sovereignty and territorial borders through a strong central state dominated by one ethnic or religious sect. It was Baghdad’s imposed central control over Sunni-inhabited provinces such as Mosul, which led the population to initially welcome the Jihadists of the Islamic state against the Iraqi army, and the fall of most Sunni areas into the hands of the IS. The policies of Baghdad resulted even in the Mosul governor of working together with the Kurds in 2010, although his Sunni party Al-Hadba managed to win most seats based on an anti-Kurdish electoral platform in 2009 due to the fact the Kurds initially dominated the mostly Sunni-Arab inhabited province after the Kurds helped the US army to capture Mosul helping the US army to capture the city in 2003. While the historical evidence shows that partition does not necessarily lead to less violence, a policy of upholding the sovereignty and territorial borders through a strong central state dominated by one ethnic or religious group can lead to separatist violence, not the other way around. Violence by Uighurs, Palestinians, Kurds, Chechens, Tibetans, and other minority groups stems from state suppression of cultural and ethnic rights, not by their calls for more autonomy. It was the former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s policies of marginalization of Shiites and Kurds that led to their uprisings in 1991.

Thus, the de-facto US policy supporting a sectarian strongman in Maliki led to the de facto ethnic partition of Iraq. A sectarian Sunnistan has fallen under ISIS control since June due to Maliki’s failed policies. This while the Kurds called for an independence referendum after Baghdad cut the regional government’s budget and Kurds took control of most of the Kurdish-inhabited parts of the disputed territories in July 2014. The Shia-dominated territories under Iraqi government control still run rampant with Shia-backed militias, discouraging mixed demographics.

Policies supporting a central authoritarian government contributed to the demographic homogenization in Iraq’s Sunni areas’, carried out by ISIS against Kurds and Shias — and Shia militias against Sunnis in Shia areas. This de facto Kurdish-Shia-Sunni war deepened sectarian fault lines in areas inhabited by both Kurds and Arabs in the provinces of Mosul, Kirkuk, and Diyala, where some Sunni Arabs supported ISIS strikes against Kurds in August, and the systematic forceful enslavement, conversion, and rape of Yezidi Kurds in the Mosul province. Kurds now feel Sunni Arabs betrayed them in mixed areas such as in Gwer and Makhur, where militants expelled Kurds but left others alone. As ISIS retreats in the face of a Kurdish counteroffensive, the possibility that Kurds will take punitive measures against Sunni Arabs for collaboration with ISIS could further destabilize the northern region in Iraq.

Had Iraq given more authority to local officials in Sunni areas and recognized Kurdish demands, the local ownership and responsibility felt for the respective regions would encourage cooperation and compromise rather than fragmentation seen today. Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi will now face the challenge of cleaning up the mess after the Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki. He will have to convince the Sunni Arabs and Kurds to fight the IS in a highly volatile and distrustful environment with the rise of Shia-militias backed by Iran. The cooperation between the Sunni Shammar tribe, Kurdish forces, and the Iraqi air force to take the town of border town of Rabia in October, shows some hope that this can be accomplished. Moreover, the oil deal between Baghdad and the Kurds signed is another hopeful indication that the new government can make concessions in the interest of cooperation.

If the West wants to prevent further fragmentation, it must encourage inclusive government and decentralization, not authoritarian central governments. In the future the people of Anbar, Mosul, and Tikrit need to have a say in their own future after the Sunnis were excluded from any power in 2011. The Kurdish deputy PM of the Kurdish government Qubad Talabani told policy makers recently in Washington that the only way to solve the IS-problem is for Baghdad to reconcile with the Sunnis and the Kurds.

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