In the coming weeks, Iraq’s leaders must make existential decisions. If they cannot form a unity government led by a new prime minister and motivate Sunni moderates and tribes to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Iraq is likely to disintegrate.
If the central government fails to grant satisfactory concessions to Sunnis and Kurds, the Kurds will push for sovereignty and independence. The Kurds are serious, and the international community must adapt to this emerging reality. While all Iraqi leaders bear responsibility for resolving the current crisis, the greatest share lies with the country’s Shiite politicians, who dominate the central government. Shiite parties must select a candidate for prime minister who can share power, decentralize the government and depoliticize the security forces.
As a prerequisite for working with the central government, Kurdistan seeks the right to export its own oil; integrate Kirkuk and other recently acquired areas; settle past budget issues and keep its own autonomous finances; and maintain control of the region’s Peshmerga security forces, including acquiring weapons to defend itself against ISIS.
The Kurds aren’t confident that Baghdad will accept these demands and have initiated parallel preparations for independence. Massoud Barzani, the Kurdish president, has asked the region’s parliament to establish an electoral commission and set a date to conduct a referendum.
Kurdistan’s arguments for sovereignty are reasonable. It is different than Arab Iraq: it is more stable, more prosperous and more tolerant. Baghdad is unable to protect its people, and won’t be able to do so for the foreseeable future. Close to one million Iraqis, including many Christians, have taken refuge there.
In the wake of ISIS advances, Kurdistan now shares a 600-mile border with a terrorist entity that proclaims itself the new Islamic Caliphate. In order to defend itself, the Kurds must be able to acquire their own arms and maintain security relations with other nations. Baghdad has suspended budget payments to Kurdistan. To pay its bills, Kurdistan must therefore sell its oil.
For years, Iraq’s Shiite-led government has failed to treat Sunnis or Kurds as equal partners. Many Sunnis now so profoundly oppose the government that they have aligned themselves with a terrorist organization that even Al Qaeda considers extremist. The Sunnis demand federalization and autonomy for their provinces, an end to de-Ba’athification, and the delegation of local security to local forces.
For their part, the Kurds were incorporated into Iraq against their will, and endured much of the 20th century under repressive, often murderous, rule. In recent weeks, Kurdish leaders have launched a major diplomatic initiative, both regionally and internationally, to promote their dual-track approach to independence.
As Washington adapts to the new reality on the ground, it would do well to adopt a similar two-pronged strategy: continue to help Iraq’s leaders forge a unity government, but prepare for the failure of those efforts.
Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, whose parliamentary bloc emerged victorious in the April 30 election, has no intention of giving up power. The major obstacle to the formation of a unity government is the vehement opposition of Sunni Arabs, Kurds, and some Shiite parties to prolonging Mr. Maliki’s rule. Iraq’s senior Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has also signaled his preference for change.
As the American ambassador to Iraq, I worked directly with Mr. Maliki, and I know that he will stubbornly resist attempts to replace him. If he ultimately agrees to step down, he will likely demand a guarantee that his successor be chosen from among a small, trusted circle; he may also insist on a position elsewhere in the government.
Absent the formation of a unity government, Iraq’s civil war will continue unabated. Sectarian conflict, and chaos in the Sunnis areas, will grow — and so will ISIS. Shiites will become more reliant on sectarian militias, and on Iran.
This trajectory threatens America’s security. The United States must continue to work for a unity government in Iraq, and extend limited assistance in the fight against ISIS. But it should also step up relations with Kurdistan by deploying a team to assess Kurdistan’s needs and coordinate security strategies to protect the region against ISIS. To help Kurdistan pay it bills, Washington should soften its opposition to direct Kurdish oil sales while increasing humanitarian assistance for refugees and displaced persons there.
The coming weeks will be decisive. The best-case scenario would be the establishment of a decentralized Iraq with a federal system in the Arab-majority areas, operating in confederation with Kurdistan. The alternative is civil war between Shiites and Sunnis, and the emergence of an independent Kurdistan.
Although Washington shouldn’t abandon its efforts to help Iraq form a unity government yet, it must think seriously about realistic alternatives if Iraq falls apart.
Whatever happens, strengthening ties with Kurdistan now will serve American interests down the road.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the president of Gryphon Partners, was the United States ambassador to Iraq from 2005 to 2007.