The Other Iraq

Since the beginning of the war in Iraq, virtually everyone from U.S. government officials to Washington think tanks to the mainstream media has subscribed to the idea of a national government seated in Baghdad. As the war drags on, though, the idea of an Iraq divided into three autonomous states, based largely along sectarian lines, is beginning to pick up some momentum, particularly among the Iraqi citizenry.

A bloc of the majority Shiites, led by Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has been pushing legislation in the Iraqi parliament that would enable the creation of an autonomous Shiite region in the Iraqi south. This independent federation of provinces, populated overwhelmingly by Shiites, would have control over its own security, and over the oil reserves located in southern Iraq.

Under the Shiite plan, the southern districts of Iraq would combine to form an independent region much like the Kurdish region currently in place in the north. Kurdish leaders, who have long sought independence from the central Iraqi government, strongly support the legislation.

Since the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime, the Kurds have been quietly, and not so quietly at times, moving forward with their plan for an autonomous Kurdistan that would be self-governing and would control the oil fields in northern Iraq.

The Kurds have never missed an opportunity to oppose a central Iraqi government, calling for the authority to secure northern Iraq with Kurdish militias, the control of oil revenues from the northern fields, and the removal of the Iraqi Army from Kurdish controlled areas. Recently, Massoud Barzani, head of the current government in the Kurdish north, demanded the Iraqi national flag being flown on government buildings be removed and replaced with the Kurdish flag.

Simultaneously, the Kurds have launched “The Other Iraq Campaign 2006,” an all-out media blitz in the United States designed to encourage business investment in Kurdish agriculture and in the oil fields located in northern Iraq. Television commercials feature Iraqi Kurds thanking the United States for freeing them from Saddam, with images of ink-stained fingers and waving American flags.

A web site called “Kurdistan: The Other Iraq” provides a history of the Kurdish people and details their struggle to survive generation after generation of oppression. Multiple links on the site tout their successes in the north:

“Not a single coalition soldier has lost his/her life or a single foreigner kidnapped in the region administered by the Kurdistan Regional Government.”

“Erbil International and Suleimani airports are now fully operational and receive regular direct flights from neighbouring countries and Europe.”

“2,800 Korean troops and fewer than 1,000 US troops are stationed in the Kurdistan region to assist in rehabilitating infrastructure.”

“An innovative 2 million sq meter industrial city (Arat) is planned 25 kilometres outside Erbil and will be open to foreign investment.”

“Investors will have a legal, secure and business friendly constitutional environment that is designed to encourage inward investment.”

If the proposed legislation were to pass the Iraqi parliament, the Kurds would exercise self-government in the north and would control the revenues from oil reserves located in the Kurdish areas. The Shiites would find themselves in a similar situation in the south, while the remaining sect, the Sunnis, would be left with an area west and just north of Baghdad that is primarily desert and practically devoid of oil.

As expected, Sunni lawmakers opposed the push for autonomous regions and threatened the stability of the current unity government if the Shiite plan went forward. The threat from the Sunnis has to be taken seriously. A violent insurgency that is largely Sunni-based has forced the Shiite and Kurdish majorities to recognize that any hope for peace in Iraq will have to include some form of political accommodation with the minority sect that maintained a ruthless dictatorship in Iraq for three decades.

For now, at least, it appears the Shiites and Kurds are unwilling to risk a further downward spiral in the violence in Iraq by alienating the Sunni minority. The speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, has been reported as saying an agreement has been reached to postpone the Shiite legislation indefinitely.

With two of the three major sects pushing for autonomous regions, though, the question becomes this: how long will the Sunnis be able to hold on in the face of American firepower and a Shiite-dominated Iraqi Army that is steadily increasing its capabilities?

By postponing the legislation for autonomous regions, the Shiites and Kurds are merely delaying what they see as the inevitable: an Iraq divided into three self-governing regions, each with control of the natural resources located within their borders. The Shiites and Kurds see the other Iraq.

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