The Dangers of Partitioning Iraq

by Wayne White

The spike in discussion about partitioning Iraq into Sunni Arab, Shia and Kurdish states is hardly surprising given the sweeping success of what is now being referred to as the “Islamic State,” the initial collapse of Iraqi army units facing it, and bitter wrangling in Baghdad over a new government.

Yet, after encountering relatively light resistance in its first advance through mainly Sunni Arab areas, the Islamic State has run up against much tougher resistance from a mixture of Iraqi troops and Shia militiamen. In fact, front lines have mostly see-sawed indecisively through contested areas in heavy fighting over the past two weeks.

To improve Iraq’s military and political options to address the Islamic State’s challenge, the swift formation of an inclusive new government is needed. Instead, with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki defiant in his bid for a third term and no clear replacement emerging from the parliament’s Shia majority, there has been stalemate. Not unexpectedly, parliamentary sessions on July 13 and 15 failed to break the prime ministerial deadlock, although the traditional Sunni Arab speaker was chosen on the 15, which represented some movement.

Kurdish Opportunism

The Kurds had already enjoyed considerable autonomy as the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) while Arab Iraq endured 11 years of violence. Before that, a separate Kurdish region existed largely beyond Saddam Hussein’s reach during 1991-2003. Both experiences fueled the Kurdish yearning for independence.

The Islamic State’s surge prompted the Kurds to seize many mixed, disputed areas adjacent to the KRG, last week expanding to encompass key oilfields. Plausible Kurdish claims were made that real estate like the city of Kirkuk had to be occupied to keep it safe from the Islamic State.

Since then it has become clear that the KRG hopes to keep these territories. Kurdish President Masoud Barzani has also upped the ante by charging the KRG parliament on July 4 with preparing a referendum on Kurdish independence. The result was predictable: over 90% of Kurds voted for independence in an unofficial referendum a few years ago.

Maliki vs. the Kurds

Deepening Iraq’s ethno-sectarian crisis, Maliki on July 9 accused the Kurds of using the KRG capital Erbil “as a base” of operations for “the Islamic State, and the Baathists, and al-Qaeda, and the terrorists.” This wildly specious outburst probably relates to the KRG’s humanitarian gesture of opening its doors to hundreds of thousands of panicked Iraqi troops, Kurds, Shia, Christians, and Turcoman fleeing the Islamic State.

Maliki also criticized the Kurds for capitalizing on the crisis to make another bid for independence, which rings true, but his false accusations have taken to a new low his years of bitter feuding with the KRG over practically everything: oil exports, oil revenue sharing, and disputed territory.

Maliki’s allegations drew an angry response from Kurdish leaders. Barzani said Maliki is now “afflicted with true hysteria,” and on July 11 senior Iraqi Kurdish officials began boycotting Maliki’s government pending an apology. Kurdish lawmakers in Baghdad, however, remained at their posts (to continue opposing Maliki).

Maliki retaliated by cutting off cargo flights between Baghdad and Erbil. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari (Kurdish) warned ominously that if an inclusive government could not be formed, “the consequences are very dire; complete fragmentation and failure” of the Iraqi state.

Demographic Obstacles

Despite its superficial appeal and Kurdish ambitions, Iraqi partition could not be implemented as neatly as many non-experts believe. For starters, Iraq’s highly complex demographics represent a formidable obstacle.

The 2006-08 wave of ethno-sectarian cleansing considerably reduced Baghdad’s diversity, but from about 60 miles south of the city all the way to the Turkish border, large areas remain mixed. As noted earlier, the KRG controversially occupies disputed territories, but the entire 1,000 kilometer perimeter of a notional independent Iraqi Kurdistan runs along heavily mixed areas.

In fact, Diyala Governate, northeast of Baghdad, south of the KRG, and east of the Sunni Arab city of Tikrit, is an ethno-sectarian mosaic. There is also a large pocket of Sunni Arab population south of Baghdad (nicknamed the “Triangle of Death” because of the danger it posed to US and Iraqi forces during the heyday of the Sunni Arab insurgency).

So partition would require the uprooting of millions of Iraqis to clear the way for demographically homogeneous mini-states. In the inflamed atmosphere across the country, precise borders would also be extremely difficult to define, and population shifts would be accompanied by considerable looting and bloodshed.

Baghdad now appears to be about 20% Sunni Arab and 80% Shia (without factoring in tens of thousands of Kurds, Christians and Turcomen). That alone could involve conflicting Sunni Arab and Shia visions of Baghdad:  the former of a common capital and the latter of an entirely Shia one.

Even if granted a slice of Baghdad, Iraq’s intensely nationalistic Sunni Arabs would find the division of the city from which they dominated the country from independence through 2003 a difficult pill to swallow.

Sunni Arab areas of Iraq are bereft of any key resource that could sustain a notional state. Compared to the Shia south and Kurdish northeast, the Sunni Arab region has little land suitable for irrigation and insufficient rainfall. Most importantly, there is no developed oil or gas. And even if there were limited revenue sharing in the context of a weak confederacy, Maliki has shown by sometimes withholding oil revenue from the KRG to express his ire that such an arrangement would be unreliable.

It is therefore likely that any purely Sunni Arab state would remain poor, encumbered with even more refugees evicted from mixed areas, and harboring profound grievances toward the other two states. Under those circumstances extremists could flourish in various forms threatening not only the other Iraqi states, but also its foreign neighbors.

One pressure point a notional Sunni Arab state does have concerning the Shia south is upstream control over the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. That would put a Sunni Arab state in a position to pressure or retaliate against the Shia by disrupting water flow to the rich agricultural south (something already in play as Baghdad fights desperately to defend a Euphrates dam near Fallujah that the Islamic State wants).

Should Maliki succeed in his bid to remain prime minister, a negative domino effect could be set in motion.

A Maliki 3rd term would mean, regardless of rhetoric, no credibly inclusive government in Baghdad. That would make splitting a large slice of Sunni Arab elites away from the Islamic State and recovering lost territory exceedingly difficult. Equally worrisome would be the very real possibility that the KRG could regard the extension of Maliki’s tenure as a pretext to set in motion an unambiguous bid for full independence from Iraq.

Photo: Residents of the Sunni city of Mosul protest against Iraq’s Shia-dominated government on April 3, 2013. Credit: Beriwan Welat/IPS

Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.



  1. One can only speculate about who planed this present course of events. A gift perhaps to appease ruffled feathers, a prelude of things to come, regime change, maybe a new alliance, who knows? The one thing that seems to go missing, is the hardship[s] the innocent civilian population[s] suffer. No one seems too quick to point that out. What a mess that only seems to get worse as time goes on.

  2. I would have liked this article to have covered two additional areas of concern. We hear all the talk about Al Maliki’s negatives and how his winning a 3rd term would damage the future of Iraq. What we don’t hear much about is who the viable alternatives are, the ones who have some ability and hope of stopping the disintegration of Iraq.

    Furthermore, any discussion of fixing this broken country will have to inevitably address the highly flawed formation of the country. Iraq, along with most of the Arab middle East, was carved out of the Ottoman empire by the Brits and the French and then broken up into countries that now seem artificial. The way those seemingly arbitrary borders were drawn around various, competing ethnic groups who were forced to be part of the same country had to do with geopolitics of the time, the West’s desire for control of certain resources and strategic locales, and the existing alliances with the tribal leaders who cooperated in the West’s scheme to divide Ottomans’ empire. Over the years the West’s foreign policy has continued to artificially bolster one ethnicity over another for strictly selfish (to Western goals) reasons. You can not solve this problem without acknowledging all that has happened, and then taking steps to correct those foreign policy disasters. An example is how the West at various stages supported the emergence of Saddam and his Baathist movement even though in effect they were supporting the brutal rule of the Sunni minority at the expense of the larger Shiite and Kurdish populations. When the West deemed Saddam was no longer a valuable partner the decision was made to upend him and shift the dominant group from the Sunnis to the Shiites. We have had 100 years of disastrous Western policies. The same policies of supporting one brutal, tribal faction at the expense of the rest continues all over the Middle East. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, Israel/Palestine are examples of how the 100 years of self-serving policies are contributing to an already deteriorating and chaotic situation.

  3. No mention of how the region administered itself prior to the creation of Iraq 90 years ago? Iraq is not exactly a long-lived state.

  4. Iraq obviously was part of Ottoman Empire (having been three provinces).

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