Iraq’s Brittle Nationhood


Does it still make sense to think of Iraq as a country? Did it ever? The struggle for control of north-central Iraq among Sunni extremists, Kurdish forces and a Shiite-dominated government is a reminder that Iraqis are riven by history, religion and ethnicity. Nationhood was imposed by force and national institutions form a weak glue. The fall of a quarter of Iraq to rebels raises a question that came up in an earlier civil war, fought in 2006-2007 during the U.S. occupation: Might Iraqis be better off, and the world safer, with the country split into three autonomous regions or even separate states?

The Situation

Jihadists of the Islamic State, strengthened by their participation in Syria’s civil war, have held territory in Iraq and Syria roughly the size of the U.K. since the middle of 2014. The group’s advances provoked the U.S. to launch a military coalition to defeat it. Extreme in its interpretation of Islamic law, Islamic State is far outside Iraq’s Sunni mainstream. Yet some residents welcomed the group as an alternative to the central government, widely regarded among Sunnis as oppressive. To fight Islamic State, the Iraqi government has leaned heavily on Shiite militias from the south, ubiquitous and violent during the U.S. occupation. Kurdish armed forces seized control of part of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city long coveted by the Kurds. Their leaders vowed to hold an independence referendum, once they could focus on something other than fighting Islamic State. Of Iraq’s 35 million people, 55 percent are Shiite Arabs, 19 percent are Sunni Arabs and 21 percent are Kurds.

Sources: U.S. Energy Information Administration; Dr. M. Izady, Gulf/2000 Project; Institute for the Study of War
Sources: U.S. Energy Information Administration; Dr. M. Izady, Gulf/2000 Project; Institute for the Study of War

The Background

Iraq is composed of three Ottoman provinces captured by the British in World War I. In 1920, the League of Nations created the British-administered Mandate for Iraq. Then as now, Sunni Muslims formed the majority in central Iraq. The south was dominated by Shiites, a branch of Islam dating to the 7th century. Iraq’s Kurds lived mostly in the northeast. Iraq became an independent country in 1932. A coup ended the British-installed monarchy in 1958 and another brought the Arab nationalist Baath Party to power in 1963. Saddam Hussein rose from the Baath ranks to the presidency in 1979, his rule marked by brutality and Sunni chauvinism. British authorities planted the seeds of the modern sectarian conflicts when, following the practice of the Sunni Ottomans, they named Sunnis to senior posts. This led after independence to Sunni-dominated governments that viciously put down Kurdish and Shiite rebellions. The U.S. reversed matters, destroying national institutions like the Baath Party and the army and handing authority to a Shiite-led transitional government with links to Shiite Iran. Its successor, the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, harassed Sunni politicians, mowed down Sunni protesters and denied Sunnis government and military positions. In September 2014, Maliki stepped down and was replaced by Haidar al-Abadi. His continued use of Shiite militias has kept sectarian tensions high.

The Argument

As a senator in 2006, Vice President Joe Biden proposed splitting Iraq into three regions, each responsible for domestic laws and internal security, with the central government managing border defense, foreign affairs and oil revenue. Some foreign affairs specialists agreed, with a few suggesting three separate states. Either approach would be messy, which explains why the U.S. has insisted on a central government that can unite the factions. What would be done in a split nation about mixed-population cities, notably Baghdad? Biden proposed making the capital a federal city and protecting the other cities with an international police force. What countries would volunteer for that kind of duty today? Economic viability for the Sunni area is another challenge. Iraq’s government relies on oil for the vast majority of its revenue, and most of the production is in Shiite areas. The Kurds are developing their reserves, but the Sunnis have few. Dividing Iraq could also fuel sectarian conflicts in other Middle Eastern countries.

The Reference Shelf

  • Political scientist Charles R.H. Tripp tells Iraq’s story from Ottoman times through the 2006 civil war in his classic book, “A History of Iraq.”
  • Middle East scholar Vali R. Nasr traces sectarian conflict in the Islamic world in his book, “The Shia Revival.”
  • The Congressional Research Service released an overview of politics, governance and human rights in Iraq.
  • Human Rights Watch reported on the Saddam Hussein regime’s brutal campaigns against Iraqi Kurds and Shiites.

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First Published June 23, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

Lisa Beyer in New York at

To contact the editors responsible for this QuickTake:

Jonathan I. Landman at

Leah Harrison Singer at