Humpty Dumpty in Kurdistan

Stopping the Islamic State's murderous advance is one thing. But resolving the political crisis between Shiite Baghdad and the Sunni power brokers up north might be impossible.


President Barack Obama’s decision to intervene militarily in northern Iraq comes in response to a security and humanitarian threat that has been building for a long time, but turned exceptionally hellish last week. The Islamic State (IS), which has recently seized large swaths of northern Syria and Iraq in recent weeks, was — surprisingly — able to overpower Kurdish defenders and seize the Iraqi city of Sinjar in the northwestern province of Nineveh. The United States has launched a series of airstrikes against IS positions near Iraqi Kurdistan, and has committed to providing weapons to the Kurds — but it’s going to take more than that to put Iraq back together again.

Sinjar is principally inhabited by Yazidis, an ethnically Kurdish but non-Muslim minority group that the Islamic State is determined to exterminate. It is relatively isolated — much closer to the Syrian border than Nineveh’s provincial capital of Mosul — and as soon as the jihadists took the city, they began posting photos of executed civilians and taking women as slaves. While many survivors escaped to safe areas of Iraqi Kurdistan, thousands were trapped on a nearby mountain, without food and water and surrounded by this murderous horde. It was this desperate sight that prompted the administration to act.

The Sinjar onslaught comes after roughly two months of impressive gains by the Islamic State, so it is not as if the offensive was completely unforeseeable. Iraqi security forces defending the western parts of Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, collapsed in the face of the jihadist offensive on June 9; after that, army units throughout the province collapsed in complete disorder. On June 10, the insurgents — dominated by IS but also including "nationalist" groups such as the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order (JRTN) — took Arab areas east of the Tigris River and the rest of Arab Nineveh province.

The offensive continued to gather momentum from there. By June 12, Mosul sources claimed IS fighters were withdrawing with orders to go to the Iraqi town of Rabia, near the Syrian border, in what was likely deliberate misinformation regarding their true target — Tal Afar, a Shiite-majority ethnic Turkman city closer to Mosul. The jihadists arrived there on June 14 to 15 and quickly overpowered the limited forces, taking most of the city before 1,200 Iraqi troops arrived on June 17. The reinforcements ended up falling back on June 24, but by at least fighting for a week they gave residents time to flee.

Even while the battle for Tal Afar was under way, IS was already beginning the now widely-reported cleansing of Christians from Mosul. Within days of Mosul’s fall, IS preachers began calling for the destruction of Christian churches. On June 15, Radio Free Iraq quoted Najib Jawqi, a local Yezidi leader, as saying, "I call upon the Kurdistan Regional Government to increase its Peshmerga forces in Nineveh to protects its residents generally and Yazidis in particular from attacks on them due to their religion."

So far, the United States has undertaken some limited air strikes against IS artillery positions in Nineveh and claims to have begun providing aid to the Kurds. For the United States, this is not some else’s conflict, nor purely a humanitarian intervention. The Peshmerga, the armed forces of Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), is fighting a terrorist group with global ambitions and a passionate hatred for Americans — though right now, they happen to be focused on killing Shiite, Kurds, and local minorities. The Kurds’ strained relations with Baghdad — whatever one might think of who is right in that dispute — should not be an impediment to increased U.S. aid.

The greater long-term conundrum is how to bring about the "political solution" for Iraq that U.S. officials reference so often. At present, Baghdad is embroiled over the controversy related to the president’s selection of Hayder al-Abadi as prime minister-designate, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s rejection of his charge to form a new government. Abadi himself is a long-time Dawa Party activist and leader, as Maliki was before taking office. He is a "gray suit" politician with no history of controversy — but no clear history of pressing for reform, either. The coalition that secured Abadi’s nomination also depended on hardline factions such as the Sadrists, which have strongly resisted Sunni demands for de-Baathification reform and provincial autonomy.

More broadly, Sunni provinces will have to deal with the fact that Shiite Islamists have an outright majority in parliament, and the next government, whatever its precise contours, will reflect this. But Nineveh, the heart of the battleground with IS, will be especially difficult: It has been the scene of almost constant violent conflict since 2003, in part due to the fact that under Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime, the Arab population was both a major recruitment source for the army and taught to view Kurds as an ethnic enemy. The Iraq Oil Report and others have reported that a number of local residents who aren’t Islamic militants are willing to work with IS for reasons of racial and sectarian enmity.

Nineveh’s dominant political family is led by Osama al-Nujaifi, speaker of parliament in the last term and still the head of the country’s largest Sunni coalition, and his brother Uthil al-Nujaifi, Nineveh governor since 2009. The family’s political positioning is a microcosm of the difficulties of hashing out a grand political solution: While it has a plan to bring the province back under the nominal control of the central government, it is not at all clear that Baghdad is entirely on the same side of the fight.

The Nujayfis started their political careers as Sunni Arab nationalists, but they are also close to Turkey — so when Ankara warmed their relationship with the Iraqi Kurds, the Nujayfi family changed their policy as well and are now the Kurds’ closest Arab allies. The Nujayfis have since then also championed the formation of a Sunni autonomous region, although they frame it in non-sectarian terms as a Nineveh autonomous entity that would include all demographic groups — Arabs and Kurds, Muslim, Christians, and other minorities. But it is clear that it would have an independent, Sunni Arab-dominated military force under Nujayfi leadership.

The Nujayfis pushed autonomy during last year’s Sunni Arab protest movement, then again as part of their electoral campaign for the parliamentary elections held on April 30, and are continuing to press it as an immediate solution to the current security crisis — not something to be achieved down the road. During the campaign, their rhetoric and that of their political bloc, called Mutahidun ("Uniters"), has converged with the nationalist wing of the insurgency, describing government policies as "genocide" against Sunni Arabs and all military operations as a war against Sunnis. The Mutahidun-aligned Baghdad television channel has been running pro-insurgency coverage, routinely referring to insurgent fighters as "revolutionaries." While the Nujayfis have repeatedly declared IS an enemy, they have been explicit that in order to take back Mosul they would have to work with the JRTN and other non-jihadist insurgents, whom they tend to describe as just local people with legitimate grievances.

Furthermore, the Nujayfis have taken the security collapse as a driver for moving forward with the military aspect of autonomy. Almost as soon as he was forced out of Mosul on June 10, Uthil began talking publicly about armed "popular committees" that would take the city back from IS, then made his first direct appeal for the formation of an armed force under Nujayfi leadership on July 25. On Aug. 2, Osama announced that the Nujayfi family, in the name of the people of Mosul, was backing a group called the "Mosul Battalions," which he described as local force formed to fight IS. In an Aug. 5 interview with Nineveh Tomorrow, Uthil detailed how the forces would work — there would be a provincial military force like the Peshmerga, more heavily armed than the police but less than the army, under the command of the governor. Another separate wing would be the Mosul Battalions, formed from locals to fight IS.

The Nujayfis’ agenda faces two major problems. First, no conceivable government in Baghdad will support this. While some degree of decentralization finds support along the Shiite political spectrum, such a large degree of autonomy will be impossible for any potential Iraqi leader to stomach. Shiite opposition to funding the Kurdish region with its own independence security services has grown strong, and it is even more so for a Sunni region. This opposition, which had already calcified when Sunnis in Salah al-Din and Diyala tried to form autonomous governments in late 2011, is much hardened by the Nujayfis’ close political ties to the nationalist wing of the insurgency.

Baghdad’s agreement is no theoretical matter — Nineveh, like all other provinces, depends entirely on the federal budget for revenues. The Maliki government cut off the KRG’s budget payments after it began independent oil exports to Turkey in December. This left the KRG on the verge of insolvency when this crisis broke out. Then Baghdad cutoff salary payments to government employees in Nineveh in June, after Mosul fell.

The Nujayfis’ second problem is that the "nationalist" insurgents themselves show no sign of going along with the plan. These groups — including the JRTN, which is the military wing of the Baath Party; the Muslim Scholars Association; and the Islamic Army — have distanced themselves from some of IS’s crimes but have continued their war on Iraqi security forces as if IS did not exist. The JRTN, in particular, issued a strong statement distancing itself from the Nujayfi initiative against IS.

Resolving Nineveh’s political conundrum will require substantial climb-down from both sides. The Shiite parties will need to be more conscious of the enmity they have created through the protection of Shiite militias and the security services’ frequent practice of arresting Sunnis without clear evidence and holding them indefinitely, or for a bribe. At the moment, this problem is only getting worse: Shiite militias have metastasized in recent months as Sunni insurgents have gained steam, and that process will have to reverse for the conflict to end.

At the same time, Sunnis will have to make their peace with handing some level of authority to Baghdad. They must recognize that no future Iraqi government will ever fund an autonomous Sunni region, especially one in which unreformed Baathists and other insurgents have an explicit role. Only a national army governed by the rule of law can hold Iraq together. If left to find for themselves, Nineveh and other Sunni areas will continue to serve as fodder for the Islamic State’s advance — despite the Obama administration’s best attempts to stem the jihadist tide.

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