For thousands of years everyone in the region has known Iraq is not a single country. Iraq’s reverting to its traditional divisions is unavoidable. Deploying 300 more US military advisers will not thwart the inevitable; nor will visits by Obama administration officials calling for unity and inclusiveness.
Iraq is really three separate geographical regions, now contested by Kurds and Arabs ethnically, Arabic and Kurdish speakers linguistically, and Sunni and Shiite Muslims religiously. Ethnically Iraqis are approximately 75 percent Arabs, 20 percent Kurds, and 5 percent Turkmen and Assyrians. Religiously they are 65 percent Shiite Muslims, 30 percent Sunni Muslims, and 5 percent Christians and Mandeans. Monarchs and dictators held the tripartite configuration together for nine decades as modern Iraq. Without their iron fists enforcing coexistence, bloody fault lines are sundering the artificial nation back into its customary divisions.
Iraq’s current national boundaries arose from British action through a League of Nations mandate in 1920. It was also the British who, influenced by notions that Shiites were fanatical and uncultured, vested authority in the new nation’s Sunni minority. The colonial masters bequeathed rule to the Hashemite prince Faisal of Mecca and Istanbul, who had previously ruled for less than five months in Syria before being forced out by the French. Several attempted and one successful coups d’état, followed by another British occupation, quickly demonstrated how unstable Iraq really was.
In July 1958 the Sunni Baathist military did finally take over, ushering in genocides against Kurds and Shiites and instigating an eight-year border war with Shiite Iran. By the time Saddam Hussein was removed by the US-led Coalition in March 2003, several uprisings by Kurds and Shiites had been violently suppressed as well by Hussein’s chemical weapon–wielding Sunni military.
However Iraq’s geographical fissures are not limited to modern times.
In early Antiquity, the region had Sumer to the south, Akkad and later Babylonia in the middle, and Assyria to the north. Wars between their peoples were frequent in the name of regional divinities like Marduk and Assur. When the Persian or Achaemenian Empire took over in the sixth century BC, Babylonia and Assyria were governed as separate administrative entities (known as satrapies) with peace between residents of different confessional and ethnic groups enforced by imperial troops. Alexander’s successors, including the Seleucids, continued those policies. During late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, the Sasanians of Iran ruled the region as three major provinces called Arbayistan, Asuristan, and Meshan plus two smaller ones—again not brooking sectarian violence between Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and pagans there.
Arab Muslim conquerors who established the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates between the seventh and thirteenth centuries reinforced those regional separations as Al-Jazira, Kurdistan, and Al-Iraq in the northwest and center, northeast, and south, respectively. Nonetheless the early centuries of Islam also laid new sectarian borders, with Shiites settling in the south at cities like Kufa, Najaf, and Basra, whereas Sunnis ruled from Baghdad. Linguistic separation occurred as well. Arabs took over the center and the south, and to this day speak Arabic, a Semitic language, there. Kurds who occupied the north spoke, and still speak, Kurdish, an Iranian language.
Fast forward to the Ottoman Empire, which upon expanding into the regions continued the tripartite geographical separation based on ethnicity, language, and religious sect. So under the Ottomans from the fourteenth through early twentieth centuries, Iraq was actually the provinces (known as eyalets or vilayets) of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra—with Sunni and Shiite Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shiite Arabs forming the majority in each province respectively often at odds with each other. Even the Safavid dynasty, which made Shiism the state religion of Iran, could only hold on to Baghdad briefly in the early sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Sure, in recent decades Sunni leaders like Saddam Hussein violently put down autonomous aspirations of Shiites and Kurds in the name of Iraqi nationalism for their own hegemonic benefit. But, like in Yugoslavia after the rule of Josip Broz Tito ended in 1980, the federal government that took over Iraq after coalition withdrawal has fueled religious, linguistic, and ethnic quagmires while proving inept at enforcing law and order. As a result, the Failed States Index for 2013 ranked Iraq the 11th-worst of 163 countries.
Now Shiites, led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, control the official regime and seek to impose the majority’s will. Not surprisingly their authority is violently rejected not only by Sunni extremists such as members of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), but by Sunni tribes, former Baathists who are largely secular, and moderate urbanites too. Likewise, abjuring all other groups, the Kurds have militarily established their own autonomy and are extending regional control as the federal government based in Baghdad collapses. Washington’s renewed attempts to have Maliki decentralize authority or even step aside come too late. Even Iraq’s largely untapped hydrocarbon reserves work against unity, for those resources are in the Kurdish north and the Shiite south, funding secessionist ambitions.
An independent Kurdistan in northern and northeastern Iraq is likely to link up with similar areas in northeastern Syria. Nationalistic struggles could very well re-ignite in eastern Turkey and western Iran if Kurds in those two countries seek to join up with their autonomous neighbors. The Republic of Turkey and the Islamic Republic of Iran wish to forestall such aspirations. So Iranian leaders met recently in Tehran with Iraqi Kurdish counterparts. Similarly, because the US and its Western allies established the northern no-fly zone, after the First Gulf War in 1991, which gave Kurds their opportunity for freedom, Washington can exert influence to avert a pan-Kurdish nation. Likewise, Western powers can pressure Kurds into respecting the rights of Assyrian-Chaldean and other Christian and Turkmen minorities.
On the other hand, southern Iraq’s Shiites have a religious, political, economic, and military ally in nearby Iran and probably will fall even more strongly under Tehran’s sway. Shiites have never accepted their holy cities of Najaf, where their first imam or spiritual leader Ali is buried, and Karbala, where their third imam Husayn was martyred, being part of Sunni-led nations. The Maliki administration is also a de facto Iranian client, another cause of resentment among Sunni Arabs and Kurds. There is little Washington can do to unmake that Shiite alliance, which long predates modern Iraq and which was reinforced during the sectarian battles of 2006 and 2007.
Iran’s president and ayatollahs have pledged publically to defend Iraqi Shiite lives, mosques, and shrines. Indeed Islamic Revolutionary Guard troops are arriving in larger numbers from Tehran to reinforce not only Iraq’s army but also Iraqi Shiite militias. Yet because Iran itself is seeking reengagement with the global community, the US can use socioeconomic leverage to steer Tehran into constructive engagement within Iraq and into countering Sunni extremism across the Middle East. Indeed, Washington and Tehran are already having such discussions. Southern Iraq is home to the Mandeans, a small sect that asserts descent from followers of John the Baptist, and their freedoms need to be guaranteed as well.
People in central Iraq, the so-called Sunni triangle, have much more in common with their relatives across the border in central Syria than with Shiites to the south or Kurds to the north. As in Iraq, that part of Syria is the battleground between ISIS and more moderate groups as Sunnis attempt to carve out territory distinct from Alawites and other Syrians.
Consequently, more than a sovereign Kurdistan nation and a Shiite satellite state, the outcome of the current struggle for Sunni Iraq will have profound global reverberations. ISIS began in central Iraq as an al-Qaeda branch, then rejected its terrorist parent’s admonishments and expanded into Syria. Iraq’s world-renowned cultural heritage is already being smashed as heretical—just like the Taliban despoiled the colossal Bamiyan Buddha statues. Not only Shiites but Christians and other minorities are being decimated. Now ISIS is recruiting militant wannabes from all over the globe; indeed 80 percent of westerners entering Islamist groups seek out ISIS.
If ISIS were to succeed in seizing the Iraqi heartland, it would certainly pursue uniting that region with the majority of Syria’s territory and creating an expansionist Islamist nation far worse than Afghanistan under the Taliban. One rallying call of ISIS fighters has been “from Mosul to Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, Amman, and then Jerusalem.” So it must be in central Iraq that the world, in particular the US and EU, focus attention and resources against ISIS.
Only mainstream Sunnis, rather than Americans and Europeans, can fight and defeat the extremists in their midst. Robustly providing training, equipment, and intelligence to moderate Sunni factions is essential. So is disrupting the banking networks that transfer funds to ISIS and the economic channels through which ISIS sells crude oil. Uniting moderate Sunnis in reclaiming not only their region of Iraq but also of Syria from ISIS and then assisting them in finding common cause with their coreligionists in Lebanon and Jordan to prevent cross-border movement of militants is vital as well. Where Western forces can get involved directly is bombing ISIS bases to destroy high-tech combat equipment—including Black Hawk helicopters, Humvees, and missiles—and approximately $500 million in cash and bullion that Islamist fighters have seized in Iraq and Syria. Only then will a neo-caliphate be prevented from arising under the direction of an al-Qaeda spinoff that sees extreme violence as the main means of spreading its creed.
Kurds, irrespective of following the Sunni or Shia sects of Islam, are united ethnically and linguistically in their goal of an independent state. Arab Sunnis and Shiites are divided by confessional hatreds that go back to the origins of Islam in the seventh century and are best allowed to live apart. Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shiite Arabs represent the latest manifestation of Iraq’s tripartite setting. The time has come to let history reassert itself in Iraq while preventing fanatics like ISIS from taking charge.
Jamsheed K. Choksy is chairman of the Department of Central Eurasian Studies in Indiana University’s School of Global and International Studies. He also is a member of the US National Council on the Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities. Carol E. B. Choksy is an adjunct lecturer on strategic intelligence in Indiana University’s School of Informatics and Computing. She also is the CEO of IRAD Strategic Consulting, Inc.