As the international community was absorbed by the rapidly changing situation in Syria, where government forces are finally getting an upper hand, the situation in Iraq has slipped the attention of the better part of geopolitical analysts. The rapid developments that are taking place in Iraq may soon lead to the disintegration of the country. In fact, two strongholds of the Sunni population – the Al Anbar Governorate with the provincial capital in Ramadi and the Nineveh Governorate with the provincial capital in Mosul have completely broken away from the federal capital. The fact that the Sunni National Guard forces trained by US instructors have almost completely liberated the town of Ramadi from ISIL militants, after weeks of brutal assaults, is of little help in this situation. Even though the Western coalition deployed special forces from the US, Great Britain, Canada, Turkey and Saudi Arabia to assist the Sunni forces, ISIL retains control over the better part of Sunni populated areas of western and north-western Iraq, while confidently dominating the battlefield.
In this situation the Iraqi government that is largely formed by representatives of Shia politicians are drafting a plan to create Sunni autonomy as a form of concession to Washington and the Sunni forces aligned with it. It is believed that this new autonomy formed by the two above mentioned governorates will largely influence the Kurdistan region as well. The Iraqi government is clearly in a hurry, since it believes that such a region can be formed out of three governorates, this time including the big and important Saladin Governorate with the provincial capital in Tikrit, located some 100 kilometers away from Baghdad. The sheer amount of support that the Islamic State enjoys in this governorate is staggering, but even more support is being enjoyed by the forces that were in power in the days of Saddam Hussein. These forces are being opposed by Shia militia units that have established their headquarters in Samarra. After all Tikrit is the birthplace of Saddam Hussein and Saladin has traditonally been a home to Sunni tribes that used to be the backbone of the Baathist regime long before the US occupation of Iraq. Therefore, Iraqi regular forces against those ISIL groups have rejected the idea of a Sunni autonomy, staying true to the idea of an Islamic Calphiphate that was proclaimed back in 2014.
Thus, rejecting the idea of the sheer presence of Shia regular forces on their territories, Sunni groups decided to form an alliance with ISIL in preparations for the creation on “Sunnitostan,” which at some point would become an independent state.
Neighboring states confirm that the collapse of Iraq has become almost inevitable. In this situation, Turkey decided to play a leading role in the liberation of Mosul from ISIL militants to subsequently hand it over to Iraqi Kurds. As it became known, the Turkish security services have started preparing an uprising in Mosul against the Islamic State, which should help the Sunnis, especially those fighting on the side of the federal Iraqi government in the liberation of the second largest city in Iraq. Some of the funds allocated by the Western coalition for this operation are being spent to bribe ISIL commanders that are entrusted with the defense of Mosul. Many of those are former officers of the Iraqi military forces under Saddam Hussein, therefore, they have little to no ideological ties with radical Islamists Moreover, after the launch of Russia’s military campaign in Syria that led to the destruction to the oil infrastructure occupied by ISIL, revenue that ISIL militants have been getting on a monthly basis has been cut by more than half.
But here there is a very sensitive issue: the future status of the other major cities of the country – including Kirkuk and surrounding areas. After all, there is a huge and rich oil field in northern Iraq which accounts for over 30% of the country’s oil production. Kirkuk was seized by the Kurds during an operation against ISIL back in 2015. And now the city is getting separated from the rest of the country by a deep ditch, with the US saying absolute nothing on the redistribution of territory inside Iraq. Yet, in order to compensate this loss for Sunni forces in Iraq, American companies have been actively looking for oil and gas fields within the territory of the future Sunnitostan. Moreover, Washington and Riyadh are supporting the idea that certain eastern and north-eastern areas of Syria should go to Sunnitostan once it is created.
The plan on the disintegration of the Iraqi state on Shiitostan, Kurdistan and Sunnitostan should be “legalized” by Washington during “extensive” meetings between Iraq Sunnis in Amman (up to 1,000 Sunni representatives). It is assumed that due to the extensive amount of money provided by Saudi Arabia and the US there would be some government “in exile” proclaimed soon for the US coalition to establish a firm control over Sunnitostan, which Washington and Riyadh are going to provide with universal recognition in the West and in the Islamic (or rather, the Sunni part of) World. Moreover, the sitting prime minister of Iraq Haider al-Abad had to give his tacit consent to the Amman conference, understanding that the Shia forces of Iraq will not be able to defeat the Sunnis, especially in a situation where Iran has committed all of its forces to military assistance for Bashar al-Assad and Shia rebels in Yemen, where special forces of several Arab countries, namely Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and the UAE, are preparing to launch an assault on Sana’a.
But it seems that Haider al-Abadi is incapable of bringing the Shia majority together to counter the rapid disintegration of the country into three pieces along ethnic and religious lines. The tribal tensions have been on the rise in the south of Iraq lately, and they have already escalated into armed clashes. It’s all but a coincidence that in the middle of January the central government sent heavily armed brigades to Basra to restore order there. In response, local leaders demanded that Shia politicans in Baghdad return those troops to the front against the Islamic State.
Therefore, one cannot rule out the possibility that the Shia forces in the south of the country will declare autonomy of their own, with the capital in Basra, leaving the sitting federal government with Baghdad and a number of surrounding governorates — where there is no oil or gas to be found. Needless to say that such a “government” won’t survive for long, since its members do not have the support of local tribes and clans, while political figures in Shia and Sunni governorates of Iraq actually do. So there’s little doubt that Haider al-Abadi is “weak”, unlike his predecessor, Nouri al-Maliki, who fought for Iraq tooth and nail even if his methods were controversial. It’s safe to assume that Iraq as we know it won’t last for long, launching a chain reaction that can potentially trigger a wave of public discontent in in neighboring countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.
Peter Lvov, Ph.D in political science, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”