Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is secretary general of the Dawa Party. Photo: Hadi Mizban | AP
If the Sunni Arabs of Iraq seek greater autonomy, or even some form of independence from Baghdad, the Kurdistan Region's drive for independence should not be blamed. What should be blamed is Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's attempts to impose complete control over the affairs of Iraq's Sunni and Kurdish minorities and his subsequent failure to prevent the rise of Islamic State (ISIS).
For years the regional states of Iran, Syria and Turkey opposed independence for Iraqi Kurdistan because they feared an independent Kurdish state bordering their respective countries would inspire their own, often restive, Kurdish minorities to seek separation. In recent months in Iraq itself leading Shiite figures are expressing their staunch opposition to the possibility of the country fragmenting into “small states”.
Iraqi Vice President Osama al-Nujaifi's proposal for Sunni autonomy like the Kurdistan Region, for example, makes them wary that Kurdish independence could see Sunni secession in the Sunni Arab-majority provinces of Nineveh and Anbar.
Even if this were to happen it would be ahistorical to blame Kurdistan for seeking its own independence. One reason the Kurds are so eager not to miss a chance to break from Iraq is their recent experience with Baghdad under Maliki.
In 2012 Maliki sought to subjugate Kurdistan firmly under his command by demanding the region's Peshmerga forces be placed under Baghdad's command. The same year saw standoffs in Kirkuk – where Maliki tried to consolidate his control over the city's security, then a shared responsibility between Baghdad and the Kurdistan Region – and Zumar in Nineveh, where the Peshmerga successfully prevented the Iraqi Army from stationing troops in that border region with Syria.
At the time Maliki even took issue with the fact the Peshmerga retained some heavy weapons captured from Saddam Hussein's old arsenal, when his regime was overthrown by the American-led invasion of 2003. These weapons consist of simple vintage Soviet-made T-55 and T-62 tanks, the only real armor the Kurds have to defend their region to the present day.
Had Kurdistan not stood its ground in opposition to Maliki's demands the Peshmerga may not have been able to mount an adequate defense against ISIS in short order in the summer of 2014 and could well have lost both Kirkuk and Erbil.
The Sunnis were not so fortunate. During the Iraq War under US General David Petraeus's strategy against ISIS's predecessor al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia vetted Sunnis formed Awakening Councils, who successfully helped the Americans and Baghdad remove the militants from their territories. The strategy certainly had an immediate success and may well have been the reason why the ISIS caliphate initially took root in Syria rather than in Iraq. Maliki opposed the strategy from the onset, fearing it would effectively enable the emergence of a competent armed Sunni force which could one day challenge him.
When the Americans were withdrawing they asked him to recruit 100,000 fighters from these councils, pay them and use them to effectively police and combat terrorism in hotspots like Fallujah and Mosul. Maliki took less than 20,000 of them and, in a move not wholly unlike Paul Bremer's infamous disbanding of the old Iraqi Army 2003, ditched the rest of them with no pensions.
Dismantling these councils and their battle-hardened fighters meant the Sunnis, unlike the Peshmerga, were largely defenseless when ISIS overran their territories. They also feared the Iraqi Army as a result of how Maliki used it to suppress anti-government protests against his policies in their regions in 2013.
Maliki's successor Haider al-Abadi is a much more conciliatory premier than Maliki, but is in a weaker position. Having inherited the ISIS crisis he made sufficient headway in rolling back the ISIS threat, with close American support, and in the Mosul offensive oversaw productive coordination between the Iraqi Army and Peshmerga against a common enemy. The Kurds say counter-terrorism cooperation will continue after they eventually break from Iraq. Erbil could also potentially act as an intermediary between Baghdad and the Sunnis of Nineveh for some kind of reconciliation arrangement.
However, if Baghdad ultimately fails to successfully reconcile with the Sunnis and they opt for greater autonomy or decentralization it's the aforementioned alienating actions of Iraq's former premier which would be to blame, not the Kurds' aim to exercise their own right of self-determination.