A Shiite militia fighter. Photo: Emad Matti/AP/file
The defeat of Islamic State (ISIS) on the urban battlefield in Mosul comes a few weeks before the planned September 25 independence referendum in the Kurdistan Region. As Kurds are expected to vote on whether to remain or secede from Iraq, Baghdad's ability to adequately govern the rest of the country is a highly important and relevant question, especially in light of the uncertain future of the country's war-wrecked Sunni Arab regions.
“It seems unlikely Baghdad can re-establish centralized control as it was known under the monarchy or the dictatorships, let alone the totalitarianism of Saddam Hussein,” Kyle Orton, a Middle East analyst and research fellow at the Henry Jackson Foundation, told Rudaw English. “All things being equal, this would be a positive step for Iraq.”
Orton isn't optimistic however, he sees a “breakdown in central authority which has left Baghdad and much of the south of the country under Iranian hegemony and the Islamic State with a great deal of societal influence in the Sunni Arab zones.”
In Diyala and Saladin provinces he pointed out that Iranian-backed groups in the Hashd al-Shaabi used “wholesale, forcible alterations of demography” in other to secure those areas. Furthermore, these paramilitary forces “are still contending with a fierce insurgency in parts of these provinces around the Jalam desert and Hamrin Mountains, and without any possible local buy-in to their governance this insurgency cannot be quelled.”
In light of this state-of-affairs Orton estimates that “for reasons of both capacity and will” neither Baghdad, nor its Tehran ally, is “likely to be able to rule effectively and directly over the Sunni Arab areas.” A problem compounded by the fact that “there is no obvious candidate, not even in Mosul, for who will rule these areas.”
“The sheer lack of a state infrastructure, as well as the inflamed sectarian situation and economic devastation, leaves a lot of room for the Islamic State to move, both physically and politically,” Orton somberly concluded.
The upcoming referendum in Kurdistan will decide if the region's inhabitants want to risk remaining an autonomous part of Iraq or break from that unstable country altogether. While the Sunni Arab minority has shared the Kurd's distrust of Baghdad, especially under the premiership of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, they aren't necessarily eager, according to Iraq analyst Joel Wing, to form autonomous areas or their own independent region.
Wing pointed out that Sunni parties and other minority groups want “federal regions” in places like the Nineveh plains, which he believes “is unlikely to happen.”
“The provincial governments with large Sunni populations are aligned with Prime Minister [Haider al-] Abadi and Baghdad and want to get closer to the central government after the threat from the Islamic State, not move away,” Wing told Rudaw English. “Minorities like the Christians don't have the political pull to push through their ideas of autonomous areas.”
Furthermore unlike the Kurdistan Region, which has had a form of autonomy since the aftermath of the Gulf War, these minorities haven't had any experience with autonomy before. Kurdistan's quarter-century of autonomy and self-governance has effectively seen it become a developed and largely stable state before making any declaration of independence.
Baghdad “has been talking about decentralizing power for years,” Wing says, citing two Provincial Power Laws as examples, laws “that are supposed to give authority of many ministries to the provinces.”
“The problem is this has never happened,” he added. “The central government and all its arms have been unwilling to devolve its power, and when oil prices are high Baghdad often tries to expand not contract.”
Nevertheless the war against ISIS meant that the Iraqi government has become “absent in many areas of the country or very weak.”
“That means any local group with guns can basically do what they want and there's nothing Baghdad can do about it,” Wing explained, citing Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's opposition to the expulsion of families of ISIS members from Nineveh, which was ignored by local authorities and tribes, as a clear example of this.
“In southern Iraq most of the security forces have been pulled out to fight in the north leaving huge gaps in authority and left tribes and criminals to do what they want in places like Basra,” Wing added.
“Overall you have this duality going on in Iraq,” he concluded. “The money and political power remains in the center, while security has devolved to the local level in many areas. The questions is when, how and if the government will be able to regain control of the latter.”