Iraq Needs Unity, Not Partition

Plans to partition Iraq into separate Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish regions won’t bring peace to the country and could actually give ISIS more power.


Amid the chaos in Iraq as major cities fall under Sunni insurgent offensives spearheaded by the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS), it is tempting to call for partitioning into separate Shi’a, Sunni and Kurdish region. Quite simply, as Steven A. Cook states, “The country no longer makes sense to the people who live there.” Yet hopes for any kind of stability under such an arrangement are deeply mistaken.

Partition plans have evolved, from Joe Biden’s 2006 proposal to federalize Iraq and create autonomous regions, to today’s calls for the complete dissolution of the state and the establishment of fully independent factional powers. But partition will not lead to self-rule and stability in Iraq, rather it will provide ISIS with a haven in which it can subjugate the local population and plan further conquests.

The foremost problem with dividing Iraq is that the Sunni insurgency that has taken over vast areas in the country’s north and west dominated is by ISIS, whose territorial ambitions extend far beyond the Sunni Arab majority areas in those regions. On the contrary, ISIS aspires to conquer all of Iraq, and expand its territory in the surrounding Levant states as the beginnings of a transnational Caliphate.

It is true that Sunni insurgent groups such as the Naqshbandi Army, Jaysh al-Mujahideen, and Jamaat Ansar al-Islam have played important roles in Iraq’s insurgency (indeed I have documented them at length here, here, here and here, well before most media outlets began following them after the fall of Mosul and Tikrit). But the reality is that ISIS has spearheaded the majority of advances into new territory, and it is mostly ISIS asserting authority in the areas falling out of government control.

This is partly due to the fact that ISIS is better financed than the other groups and so can engage in better outreach to locals with provision of commodities and services, besides having superior weaponry captured in previous raids on military bases in both Iraq and Syria. Indeed, local testimony in both Tikrit and Mosul points firmly to a picture of ISIS calling the shots. Local pushback against ISIS domination in these areas to bring a power sharing arrangement, seems ever more remote.

Even if ISIS did not dominate the Sunni insurgency, a partition would likely still not achieve stable boundaries between Iraq’s Shia, Sunnis and Kurdish areas. The main non-ISIS Sunni insurgent organizations are all revolutionary in intent, meaning they aspire to rule over all of Iraq at a minimum. The one exception is the Islamic Army of Iraq, which calls for a Sunni federal region but is too weak compared to the other groups to sway the broader insurgent coalition.

Like ISIS, the other members of the Sunni insurgency, including the Baathist groups, seek the ultimate overthrow of the central government. Their aims are rooted in the belief that Sunni Arabs constitute a demographic plurality and even majority in Iraq and are entitles to regain rule over the country.

Nor are the problems with partitioning Iraq limited to how such an outcome would play out in the country’s Sunni areas.

A Shi’a region would also be problematic, prone to becoming a rump client state of Iran. Indeed, for comparison, one should note how Iran has already long sought to build its influence on pro-autonomy trends in Basra, the Shia stronghold and port city in Iraq’s south. In Basra, Iranian proxy militias such as Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq became entrenched and untouchable powers over the course of 2012 and 2013.

In any case, just as the majority of the Sunni insurgent groups ultimately seek the overthrow of the central government, Shi’a factions in a divided state would pursue the same restoration of national power. Regardless of Iranian influence, Shia groups in Iraq still believe in a concept of Iraqi nationalism. Such groups would not be satisfied with having their power limited to Shi’a-dominated southern areas and would strive to reunify the country under their own rule.

Besides, the model of a Sunni-Shi’a partition would still leave unsolved the many ethnically mixed Sunni-Shi’a areas of Diyala (where a Kurdish component is also notable) and Salah ad-Din provinces, unless one wishes to posit a substantial amount of ethnic cleansing in these places.

Even in Kurdistan, which has prospered under autonomy, the full breakup of Iraq would have negative consequences.

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A fully independent Kurdistan, without a national government in Baghdad, will be almost wholly dependent on Turkey. This arrangement will create intra-Kurdish conflict across borders, with Kurdish areas of Syria, to which Turkey maintains broad hostility, opposing the Turkish client state in Iraq’s Kurdistan.

Only a policy of national unity can eventually bring true stability throughout Iraq. To begin with, Iraq needs national-level emergency measures: reform of the security forces to curb sectarianism and heavyhanded practices; outreach to improve local cooperation with government, and an end to the discrimination against Sunni Iraqis who must be reintegrated into the country’s political and economic life if it is to survive as a unified nation.

Ultimately, Iraq needs to end the sectarian politics that allocated power based on personal and group loyalties with little regard to competency and the needs of the population. Partition along sectarian lines—de facto or official—addresses none of these fundamental problems that have impeded the country’s great potential.

Chaotic as the state of Iraq is right now, simply proceeding with the current course of events for a de facto three-way partition is not the way to achieve stability. In fact, partition may lead to substantial ethnic cleansing and economic and societal collapse for the Sunni Arab areas in particular.