Is this the end of the state of Iraq?

Is this the end of the state of Iraq?
4 min read
25 Sep, 2015
Comment: High profile commanders in the US are contemplating the end of Iraq as a unified state. With that, questions of accountability and post-war arrangements arise, writes James Denselow.
Iraq's armed popular mobilisation units failed to consolidate Iraq's national identity [AFP]
How does a state die? So many of the modern problems of the Middle East trace their roots back to the colonial lines drawn across maps. There is of course no divine order that these states should continue forever more.

The Islamic State group certainly does not think Iraq has a future and it has redrawn the boundaries to suit its own "caliphate" – symbolically bulldozing the Iraq-Syrian border sand berm.

However, whilst IS can claim what it wants, its delineation of a new state entity is not formally recognised by anybody else and we are unlikely to see an IS delegation arguing at the UN anytime soon.

What does perhaps give pause to thought is when a senior US government figure questions the viability of the Iraqi state. That's exactly what Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, head of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, did early this month when he suggested Iraq and Syria may have been permanently torn apart by war and sectarian tensions.

The "to-do" list for Iraq's leaders to keep the state afloat grow longer every day. Decades of war, sanctions and civil strife have eaten away at the infrastructure of the country. So desperate have things become that Iraqi officials have reported over 120 cases of cholera in recent days in the capital Baghdad, nearby Abu Ghreib, and Najaf.

The WHO have warned there is an urgent need to address this outbreak which could easily spread amongst those Iraqis who've been internally displaced – a number that currently stands at a staggering 3.2 million people.

The decaying water infrastructure is matched by that of power supply – a bitter irony for such an oil-rich country. In August thousands of Iraqis demonstrated against the government over the lack of basic services across the country, as rampant electricity cuts exacerbated a sweltering heat wave.
     These functional crises are increasingly eroding what remains of the authority of the central government.

These functional crises are increasingly eroding what remains of the authority of the central government. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi took the bold step of responding to the electricity protests by sacking a third of his cabinet in August.

But Abadi is head of a state which is losing control of the basic tools of statecraft. Take the legitimate use of violence over Iraqi sovereign territory: the decline of the unitary Iraqi state has been filled with militias and non-state actors. The sectarian dynamics that some of these operate in is what particularly concerned Lt. Gen. Stewart. 

Another example would be the expulsion of IS from Tikrit. What could have been a significant turning point that united Iraqis behind their own army was, instead, according to Human Rights Watch, an orgy of looting and destruction as government-backed militias ran amok.

"Iraqi authorities need to discipline and hold accountable the out-of-control militias laying waste to Sunni homes and shops after driving ISIS out," said Joe Stork, deputy HRW Middle East director.

Abadi can barely look after his own security let alone provide it for millions of Iraqis. On Monday night, at least ten rockets were reportedly fired in the direction of Baghdad international airport and reports have emerged that the US embassy in Baghdad recently foiled two assassination attempts on the prime minister.

The Institute for the Study of War explained that efforts to push IS out of Ramadi remain stalled as "Iranian-backed militias are openly challenging PM Abadi's government".

Meanwhile, it is not only IS who is looking for a future beyond the existence of an Iraqi state. To the north of Baghdad one of the few stable and relatively thriving parts of the region, Iraqi Kurdistan, continues to imagine a future where it does not have to engage in never-ending conversations on federalism and oil sharing with a gridlocked central government.

The Kurds are also wary of their ability to carry the humanitarian burden falling out of the rest of Iraq putting out a statement this week that explained that "without a significant increase in funding from the international community and financial transactions from government of Iraq, the Kurdistan Region will not be able to contain the humanitarian crisis".

Iraq is being divided both from within and without and increasingly resembles a patchwork quilt of red and green zones with various armed groups and applications of the rule of law.

Similar to the Emperor's new clothes, the big question is when people will recognise that Iraq could become a state that exists more on paper than in reality and start adjusting their policies and narrative accordingly.

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.