Restoring unity in Iraq in the wake of the devastating sweep of militant terror across the country’s north will depend on achieving enough separation among Kurds, Shia and Sunnis to re-establish a balance of power on the ground, two high-level Kurdish officials said. The leaders addressed an audience at the U.S. Institute of Peace this week, appealing for the U.S. and others to urgently provide heavy weapons to confront the self-described “Islamic State” terror group and for humanitarian aid for 1.5 million refugees and displaced people who’ve taken refuge in Kurdistan.
Fuad M. Hussein, the chief of staff to Masoud Barzani, the president of Iraq's Kurdistan region, and Falah Mustafa Bakir, the regional government's minister for foreign relations, said a combination of federalism and cooperation would be needed to move Iraq forward under new Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. He replaced Nuri al-Maliki, who failed to garner enough support to form a government after parliamentary elections in April.
Maliki had faced widespread criticism that he had so dramatically sidelined – and even targeted for detention and harassment -- minority Sunnis and Kurds in favor of his own Shia sect that the resulting anger opened the door for the advance of the "Islamic State" group, also known by the acronyms ISIL or ISIS. The group's rampage across northern Iraq and takeover of the country's second biggest city of Mosul and surrounding areas has left thousands dead, displaced millions and traumatized the rest with gruesome practices such as beheadings, including those of two Americans.
"It would be difficult, after what happened in Iraq, especially between the Sunnis and the Shia, to bring these two communities together in one Iraq," Hussein told the USIP audience on Sept. 18. "The solution is that the Sunnis will have their own area, and the Shia will have their own area, and our right has been recognized in the constitution as a federal region. Then we can have Baghdad for all of us."
The tumult in Iraq has reverberated across the region and the world. President Barack Obama declared on Sept. 10 that the U.S. would work with Iraqis, the Syrian opposition and a coalition of international partners to "degrade and ultimately destroy" the Islamic State group.
"What we've seen over and over is that what's happening in Iraq has great influence on what's happening [in] the region at large," said Manal Omar, USIP's acting vice president for the Middle East and Africa, who has worked in or on Iraq since 1998. "The threat goes as far as Yemen and all across the region and, I would even argue, is beginning to take a real global scale."
Three months to deliver
The Kurds are pivotal in Iraq and the broader region, said former U.S. Ambassador Bill Taylor, USIP's acting executive vice president. "Critical challenges lie in front of us as we attempt to degrade and destroy the Islamic State," he said, citing the plight of millions of people forced from their homes and the trauma caused by thousands of killings, including beheadings.
The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has given al-Abadi three months to deliver on what they say is the rightful status of the region under a constitution Iraq adopted after the 2003 U.S. invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. The regional leaders have set out demands on distribution of national government revenues, oil and gas issues, and disputed territories.
In addition to a federal system of governance, Iraq's economic and security systems must be decentralized, Hussein said, because it's not feasible for any of the three major groups' military forces to fight in areas populated primarily by one of the other groups. "It would be difficult to have one security force," Hussein said. "We must have various security forces."
The KRG also is struggling with the demands of fighting the "Islamic State," despite the strength and sophistication of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, and of dealing with the associated "humanitarian catastrophe," Bakir said. Iraq is sheltering 1.8 million people who've been forced from their homes, either refugees from the war in neighboring Syria, or displaced Iraqis who fled their homes in the wake of the Islamic State's advance. Of the total, 1.5 million are in Kurdistan.
More than 700 schools in the region are housing displaced people. "The displaced people cannot be asked to leave the schools," Bakir said. But "the school year has started," so children's educations are being delayed. Authorities have estimated they need 26 camps for the displaced and refugees to get through winter, he said.
The regional government also hasn't been able to pay its Peshmerga forces or civil servants for three months, Bakir said.
Commitment of Iraqis on the ground
Bakir appealed for attention to the genocidal pattern of the so-called "Islamic State" group, which USIP's Manal Omar suggested should be called by its Arabic acronym, Daesh to deny the organization any association with Islam or the concept of a state.
USIP has worked in Iraq since 2003, and while it's difficult to talk about progress in the current environment, Omar said, many Iraqis have demonstrated serious commitment to pursuing peace. USIP has worked with partners in civil society and government authorities, such as the ministries of education and religious affairs and the high judicial councils in both the Kurdish capital of Erbil as well as in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.
The institute supported the University of Duhok in Kurdistan in establishing a peacebuilding curriculum that has since turned into a master's degree program. The USIP-backed TV reality show "Salam Shabab" brought young people from 16 of Iraq's 18 provinces to Erbil for the production, and participants continue to support each other through the current crisis.
"As Iraq and the international community are gearing up to roll back the Daesh, the reality is that we need to put in place not only a short-term solution to dealing with this particular group, but a long-term strategy with intensive efforts for communities to heal and restore some sort of normalcy in order to move forward," Omar said. The massive human displacement is causing "increasing strains that could have long-lasting negative effects."
Any progress will require overcoming deep political and societal rifts, Bakir said.
"We are dealing with a situation in Iraq [where] it's all based on a lack of trust and unfulfilled promises," he said. "If we want to have a better future, a future that can be sustained, a future that can ensure partnership, power-sharing and prosperity, then we have to be realistic."