Will Iraq remain united in 2020?
Thanks to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s plans for new provincial divisions the country’s continuing unity is under threat, writes Salah Nasrawi
There was no referendum, no opinion polls, and no cross-party or public debate, as there usually is when genuine democracies inform people about their choices so that they can make decisions and accept responsibilities.
The announcement by Iraq’s Shia-led government last week of plans to create several new provinces, some of them from contested parts of the country, has taken most Iraqis by surprise and renewed fears of Iraq’s “soft partitioning”.
It also comes amid reports that preparations are underway with international backing to declare Iraq’s northern autonomous Kurdistan Region independent within the next five years.
Iraq’s latest conflict began on 21 January when the government announced plans to turn Tuz Khurmatu and Talafar, two towns which fall inside Iraq’s so-called “disputed territories” which are claimed by almost all Iraq’s mosaic of different ethnicities, into new provinces.
Two days later the government said it also planned to turn three more districts into governorates, including Fallujah, a district in Anbar, Iraq’s largest province and a stronghold of Sunni resistance against the Shia-dominated government.
Shia Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki described the decision, taken by a majority of his ministers, as being “irreversible” because he said it was “constitutional and lawful.” Iraq is currently divided into 18 muhafazat, or governorates. Three of these constitute the northern Kurdistan Region and the rest are under the central government’s control.
In explaining why it wanted to establish the new governorates, the government said the districts were large enough in area and population to be upgraded to the status of provinces. It said the new arrangements would help to boost economic development in the provinces and provide better services and social care to their populations.
Yet, the government’s plans for a new provincial map of Iraq have opened up many challenges on both the local and national levels. Many Iraqis question their policy objectives, legitimacy and timing.
Under the plans, which need to be ratified by the Iraqi parliament, Tuz Khurmatu, a district dominated by Shia Muslims of Turkmen ethnicity and annexed to the Sunni Arab-dominated Salah Al-Din province, is to be a separate province.
Another town whose inhabitants are also mostly Shia Muslims of Turkmen ethnicity, Talafar, now controlled by Nineveh, a Sunni Arab-dominated province, is also to be declared a separate governorate.
Since the US-led invasion of the country in 2003 that toppled the Sunni-controlled regime of former president Saddam Hussein both Tuz Khurmatu and Talafar have been subjected to frequent bombings by the Al-Qaeda terrorist group, and the plan reawakens hopes that they will now assume their own security and governance.
It came as no surprise that the Turkmens, who are Iraq’s third-largest ethnicity, hailed their upgrading as an opportunity for greater political influence alongside the country’s Kurds and Arabs.
Leaders of the Turkmen community, which has been complaining of marginalisation in recent years, urged the national parliament to quickly endorse the government plans.
Iraq’s Christian minority, which has also been complaining of exclusion and discrimination, hailed the decision to turn the largely Christian populated Nineveh areas into a province as a blessing.
Some Iraqi Christians have called for a separate Christian “federal entity” in these areas of northern Iraq in the hope that they could thereby gain greater autonomy, security and political status.
But the Kurds, who had hoped that the three would-be provinces would become part of their autonomous region, have voiced strong reservations to the move, which has been vetoed by Kurdish cabinet ministers.
Though the Kurdistan Regional Government has refrained from commenting on the plans thus far, Kurdish MPs slammed them as unconstitutional and politically motivated.
Meanwhile, Sunni Arabs in Nineveh railed against the plans, which will take both Talafar and the Plain of Nineveh from the largely Sunni Arab populated province.
Governor Atheel Al-Nujaifi of Nineveh said he would ask the provincial council to declare Nineveh a federal region if the parliament moved ahead and approved the plans.
Sunnis in Anbar also rejected the idea of carving Fallujah out of the already Sunni majority province.
Meanwhile, rival Shia groups have also been lukewarm about the plans, partly because they see them as designed to serve the election campaign of Al-Maliki who is seeking a third term in office in the 30 April polls.
Leader of the Shia Sadrist parliamentary bloc Bahaa Al-Aaraji said the decision would “open the door to the splitting of Iraq.”
A closer look at the plans, however, indicates that the Al-Maliki government’s decision may not be haphazard, as some outside observers had previously suggested. Its intention is to redraw the borders of Iraq’s provinces in case the partitioning of the country becomes inevitable.
Its main goal is apparently to create pockets inhabited by ethnicities other than Kurds that would encircle the Kurdish enclave in the north of the country and bloc its expansion into the disputed territories.
With calls for Sunni Arab autonomy within a federal Iraqi state gaining strength, the plans also aim at limiting their assertion of territorial control.
In recent weeks, Sunni leaders have been increasingly vocal about demanding their autonomy.
Last week, Sunni Speaker of the Parliament Osama Al-Nujaifi traveled to Washington to discuss Sunni grievances with US President Barack Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden.
Prominent Sunni MP Saleem Al-Juburi said Al-Nujaifi had discussed with Obama and Biden the possibility of declaring the Sunni-populated provinces as federal regions within Iraq.
“This is the [only] solution if other solutions fail,” he told Iraqi Al-Summeria television.
In 2006, Biden, who was a leading US senator at the time, proposed the so-called “soft partition” plan to divide Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions held together by a central government.
But the plan was seen by many Iraqis as paving the way for breaking up the Iraqi state into three separate entities for Kurds, Shias and Sunnis.
A Kurdish news outlet close to the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party reported this week that the autonomous Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq would declare its independence within five years.
Rudaw quoted energy advisor to the Kurdistan Regional Government Ali Balu as saying that Kurdistan “is going to be rid of its status as a region within Iraq.”
“A plan is underway for Kurdistan to be an independent state in the near future,” he said. According to Balu, Kurdistan’s independence would be driven by the region’s geostrategic position and its rich energy reserves.
He said that Kurdistan president Masoud Barzani’s participation in the World Economic Forum at Davos last week had been to pave the way for international recognition of Kurdistan as an independent state.
Barzani has repeatedly warned that the Kurds will seek independence if the region’s disputes with Baghdad over oil, the region’s budget and its territory remain unresolved.
More broadly, the widely expected moment of Iraq’s split may now be finally approaching. It has long been assumed that the failure of Al-Maliki’s coalition government would push Iraq into “soft partitioning” as the only means of avoiding a fully-fledged civil war and the growing threat of a regional flare-up.
Given the increased violence and political uncertainty in Iraq today, the new plans, which would initiate substantive changes in Iraq’s ethno-political map in addition to Kurdistan’s alleged preparations for early independence, raise the question of whether Iraq will remain united in 2020.
In a country where fundamental issues remain unresolved, including the future shape of its provincial boundaries and power-sharing, things are likely to continue teetering on the brink.
With communal divisions sharpening and violence going unabated, the Iraqis’ faith in a unitary state is fading and many of them may now be surrendering to what they see as inevitable.