October 15, 2006

Declaration of "Islamic Iraq" - precursor to civil war?

The Al-Qa'idah led Islamic insurgent umbrella organization Mujahidin Shura Council announced that it has established an Islamic Iraqi state comprising four governorates and portions of two others. The area consists mainly of the Sunni areas of the country, and the capital city of Baghdad. It also includes areas that are inhabited by Kurds and Shi'a Iraqis.

This move is yet another indication that the country is fragmenting into three autonomous regions. Ironically, what the insurgents are doing is actually provided for in the Iraqi constitution that was ratified one year ago on October 15, 2006. Under provisions of that document, residents of two or more governorates can establish autonomous regions, effectively setting up states within the state. According to the constitution, certain functions, such as defense and management of oil revenues, would continue to be under the control of the federal government. (Note: Iraq, with its proven oil reserves of 112 billion barrels and huge unexplored oil fields, is surpassed only by Saudi Arabia in terms of potential oil revenue.)

It is this provision that has been fully exploited by the Kurds, who have established the Kurdish Regional Government. They have gone so far as to direct that only the Kurdish flag will be flown in the autonomous region, have established an airline and, contrary to the constitution, negotiated oil deals with European oil companies.

There are indications that the Shi'a are contemplating doing the same thing. The one thing that concerns the Sunnis is the oil revenue issue. Both the Shi'a and Kurds want to control the oil resources in their areas. That means that the Shi'a (60 percent of the population) would control about 80 percent of Iraq's oil, and the Kurds (20 percent of the population) would control the remaining 20 percent. That is why "Islamic Iraq" claims Kirkuk with its huge oil fields.

Sectarian violence has been on the increase since the February 2006 attack on the Al-'Askari mosque (also called the Golden mosque) in Samarra'. The three major factions - Kurds, Sunni and Shi'a - have been staking out their positions for what many believe is the inevitable civil war. Unless the government of Nuri Al-Maliki can secure the country, it will ultimately devolve into anarchy and civil war. Given the government's inability to even secure Baghdad, that possibility is looking more and more likely.

Islamic Iraq - the Sunnis - are probably in the worst position should an all-out civil war erupt. The Kurds have virtually autonomous since 1992, are fairly self-sufficient and fiercely independent. They are capable of defending their territory against the Sunnis, the Shi'a or both. The main area of contention will be their unwavering demand that Kirkuk be part of their area. Kirkuk under Saddam Husayn was "Arabized" - Kurds were moved out and replaced by Arab Iraqis. After the fall of the regime in 2003, the Kurds have been removing the Arabs and Turkoman - sometimes by force. This ethnic cleansing is taking place in neighborhoods all over Iraq.

What happens if there is a civil war? The Kurds will probably declare themselves to be independent. This runs the risk of intervention by Turkey, who along with Iran and Syria have stated that an independent Kurdistan is unacceptable. Turkey is concerned that its Kurdish minority will want to do the same, possibly joining the new state. Of course, the Iraqi Kurds' use of the term "southern Kurdistan" to describe northern Iraq does nothing to assuage Turkish concerns.

The Shi'a and Sunni will be the main antagonists. What may happen is intervention by the Iranians on the side of the Shi'a, and the majority Sunni Arab countries - such as Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia - may intervene on the side of the Sunnis. Regional conflict might ensue between the Arabs and the Iranians/Persians.

What of the American forces? They are the only thing preventing a full-blown civil war now. If it happens, the United States will have no choice but to withdraw and let it happen. As an old colonel once told me, "Sometimes you have to let the train crash to build a railroad."