Fighting ISIS created a false sense of national unity among Iraqis. Now that Mosul is liberated, Iraqis must confront their rivalries and decide the country’s future. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has called for national unity, but Iraq remains deeply divided.
The Government of Iraq (GOI) has no apparent plan for resettlement, reconstruction or reconciliation.
Mosul is a wasteland of rubble and ruin. Without stability and security, displaced people cannot return to their homes. They also need shelter and services, such as water and electricity. Reconstruction will cost at least $1 billion.
The GOI needs to address the root causes of conflict, engaging Sunnis in the political process. However, it seems unwilling or unable to address the political and economic conditions that radicalized Sunnis and gave rise to the Islamic State in the first place.
Iraq is a graveyard of betrayal and false promises.
The November 2010 Erbil Agreement established 19 power-sharing principles. It resolved a political crisis between Shiites and Sunnis, dividing leadership positions across a multiparty and multisectarian coalition. However, the agreement was never implemented.
Instead of power-sharing, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki harassed and arrested prominent Sunni politicians. He purged Iraq’s professional armed forces of Sunni officers and brought security forces and militias under his direct control. Mr. Maliki cut the budget of the Sunni Awakening, which fought al Qaeda, leaving thousands unemployed.
Iranian-backed Shiite militias — Popular Mobilization Forces — continue to operate independently with government sanction. Their activities create insecurity in provinces with a mix of Sunnis and Shiites.
Mr. Maliki was replaced by Mr. Abadi as prime minister in 2014. Iraqis view him as weak and ineffective. Sunnis have little confidence, despite Mr. Abadi’s efforts at reform.
Iraqi Kurds have likewise lost faith in Baghdad’s ability to protect their interests.
After the toppling of Saddam Hussein, Kurds bent over backwards to avoid breaking up Iraq. Kurds deferred their demand for independence, opting for a federal, democratic Iraq, with decentralized governance.
Article 140 of Iraq’s 2005 Constitution promised a referendum on the status of Kirkuk. But the referendum never happened.
Failure to address Kirkuk’s status exacerbated other core Kurdish concerns, such as Kurdish ownership of natural resources and the sharing of oil revenues. In 2013, Baghdad suspended payments to the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of oil sales from Kirkuk, pocketing the revenue for itself. The U.S. generously supported the Iraqi armed forces, but Baghdad refused to share resources or equipment with Kurdish “Peshmerga.”
The KRG plans a referendum on independence for Sept. 25, 2017. The KRG insists it will not move precipitously, preferring a friendly divorce from Iraq.
Where does the U.S. stand on Iraqi Kurdistan’s independence?
Though the Trump administration is nominally opposed, it is agnostic about assisting Iraq’s long-term recovery. Washington increasingly recognizes that Iraqi Kurds are America’s best partners in the region. They are a bulwark against extremism. The U.S. and Iraqi Kurds share values. Both believe in human rights and democracy. Both adamantly oppose radical Islamism.
In the Middle East, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The KRG does not speak loudly about its cooperation with Israel, including oil shipments to the Israeli port of Ashkelon. Kurds and Israelis have a lot in common. Both are small states surrounded by hostile neighbors.
In 2014, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu endorsed the “Kurdish aspiration for independence,” citing “the collapse” of Iraq. According to Mr. Netanyahu, Kurds are a “fighting people that has proved its political commitment, political moderation, and deserves political independence.”
The map of the Middle East is changing. States created by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, such as Iraq and Syria, are inherently unstable.
The U.S. needs a reality-based approach to the Middle East. Iraq is not viable; Arabs in Iraq do not get along. Fighting ISIS may have temporarily masked their differences. But after Mosul, Iraq is still beset by dysfunctional politics.
When Iraq unravels, don’t blame the Kurds. The responsibility for Iraq’s demise rests with Iraqis who pursue sectarian agendas, undermining pluralism and inviting meddlesome nefarious neighbors.
The U.S. should work with its friends, rather than try to placate its adversaries. Iraqi Kurdistan, as a sovereign and independent state, will be a driver of democratization in the region and a reliable ally of the United States.
• David L. Phillips is director of the Program on Peace-building and Rights at Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a senior adviser and foreign affairs expert to the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau of the U.S. Department of State during the George W. Bush administration. He is author of “Losing Iraq: Inside the Postwar Reconstruction Fiasco” and “The Kurdish Spring: A New Map for the Middle East.” His most recent book is “An Uncertain Ally: Turkey Under Erdogan’s Dictatorship.”
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