A nation in peril Iraqs struggle to hold together

Written by Reuters | Baghdad | Updated: Jul 28 2014, 08:06am hrs
Salman Khaled has already lived through Baghdad's sectarian disintegration; with Iraq now splintering into Shi'ite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish regions, he says this time the survival of the country is at stake.

Things are really tense and it could get worse," said the 23-year-old Sunni Muslim student. "If the politicians continue as they are doing now, we are on the path to separation.

When Khaled's father was shot dead by Shi'ite gunmen at the height of Baghdad's religious bloodshed seven years ago, his family took shelter in a Sunni neighborhood of the capital.

They made their flight as violence forced apart communities that once mingled in the city. Today the family lives in the Adhamiya district, close to the Abu Hanifa mosque where one of Sunni Islam's most influential theologians is buried.

At his home on an unpaved street, Khaled says he still feels secure in Adhamiya but he rarely goes to the rest of Baghdad where blast walls and security checkpoints hint at the fate of a fractured Iraq.

Iraqs latest - and gravest - crisis erupted when mostly Sunni fighters swept through the north last month. Now the jihadist black flag flies over of most of the country's Sunni Arab territory.

Kurdish forces, exploiting the chance to take another step towards independence, seized the city of Kirkuk and nearby oilfields, leaving the Shi'ite-led government controlling only the capital region and the mainly Shiite south.

The government is trying to reverse this de facto, three-way split of the country, but its reliance on Shi'ite militia and volunteers rather than the ineffectual national army has deepened sectarian mistrust without pushing the rebels back.

Across Baghdad a Sunni living in the Shi'ite area of Maalef, cut off from the rest of the city by a checkpoint where non-residents are turned back, said life there had become unbearable for those who do not belong to the majority Shi'ite


The Sunnis all want separation now," said the 37-year-old electrician, who asked not to be named for his security. "Facts on the ground tell you this will be the final result. On both sides now you have extremists who don't want to get along. Kurdish politician Hoshiyar Zebari, who still staunchly advocates Iraqi unity, described the new geography. The country is divided literally into three states: the Kurdish state; the black state (under Sunni insurgents) and Baghdad, he said.

Iraqs political elite and world powers have concentrated on the formation of a new government as the best way to save the country, but such a push may come too late.

Its probably the most serious crisis that Iraq has faced since its inception as a country, said Ali Allawi, a minister in two governments after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. Its the first time that the territorial integrity of the state as a whole is in question.

This could further destabilise an already tumultuous region. Neighboring Syria also faces disintegration, with most of its eastern areas under Islamist rebels for more than a year.

Iraq is a failed state, said Masrour Barzani head of the Kurdish regions National Security Council. It is a fabricated state. It has never been a state by choice by the people or the components of this country, he said.