By Jacob Kennedy Senior Writer 14 November 2017

Iraq’s Kurds voted for independence, seemingly only leading to the further destabilization of the country. On September 25th, around 90% of Iraqi Kurds voted for independence with a turnout close to 75%. The President of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), Massoud Barzani, defied criticism and pushed ahead with the vote saying that it was only a tool for political leverage with Baghdad. However, the vote has been far more detrimental to the Kurds than Barzani planned, in addition to the serious problems it could cause for Iraq’s Sunni population as well.

The KRG and President Barzani insisted the vote was just a tool for political leverage for border negotiations amidst the downfall of ISIS in northern Iraq, but the structure of the political system and the further rise of Shia paramilitary groups will amplify the effects of the Kurdish vote beyond Barzani’s initial goal.

The Sunnis of Iraq already perceived themselves as vulnerable compared to the other two major ethnic groups in Iraq’s government and the Kurdish vote for independence has only highlighted that fear further. The vote shows that Iraqi Kurds have a level of autonomy that the Sunnis do not have and probably will not have in the future. Perceptions of economic, social, and political vulnerability by Iraq’s Sunni population contributed to the rapid rise of ISIS; those vulnerabilities have not disappeared and in many ways have only worsened. Iraqi Sunnis continue to feel alienated from an increasingly Shia dominated government in Baghdad and many have lost faith in their own Sunni politicians.

Ethnoreligious map of Iraq

Ethnic and religious groups of Iraq

Despite the overall success of fighting ISIS in Iraq over the last year, the same social and economic forces that fed the rise of ISIS will still exist and may be exacerbated by the Kurdish vote. The group arose from predominantly Sunni areas of Iraq, due in large part to perceptions of insecurity and rampant corruption in many Sunni communities during the government of Nour al-Maliki. Many saw the government’s policies favoring the Shia south while their own economic and political security diminished, a fear still prevalent in Sunni communities.

Not only has the independence vote affected Iraqi Sunnis, but the vote has actually considerably set the Kurds back. President Barzani stepped down as the president of the KRG and Iraqi forces, along with Shia paramilitary groups, took back Kirkuk from the Kurds. Baghdad, along with Iran and Turkey, also enacted some limitations on border crossings, held joint military drills, seized Kurdish oil fields, and threatened additional economic and political action to further isolate Iraq’s Kurdish population. The campaign to isolate the KRG has weakened the relative power of Iraq’s Kurds relative to Baghdad, while Iraqi Sunnis remain relatively weak and insecure compared to Shia populations.

The conflict with ISIS led to the rise of Shia paramilitary groups called Popular Mobilization Units (PMUs). These groups continue to spread out and increase their power in Sunni dominated areas of Iraq and in the wake of the Kurdish vote, have also expanded in the Kurdish border regions too. Some of these groups are backed by Iran and while there are questions about the level of Iranian support and control over these groups, the fact that they are linked to Iran has worried both Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds.

Popular Mobilization Forces during Hawija offensive

Shia PMUs during the Hawija Offensive

The vote by the Kurds, whether just a political tool or not, has led to a worsening of the delicate political, social, economic, and security balance between the three major ethnic groups of Iraq. Feelings of insecurity in Sunni communities could lead to a resurgence of ISIS or the rise of other criminal/extremist groups. While it is unlikely any such group would take root in Kurdish controlled areas, a further weakening of the Kurds could not only weaken their ability to fight any extremist group in Iraq, but could also further Sunni perceptions of insecurity, relative to Iraq’s Shia community. The Sunni area of Iraq has been largely destroyed by the conflict with ISIS and the Kurds face increasing economic and political pressure.

Unfortunately, the United States’ policy options are limited due to the complex blending of Iraqi domestic politics and regional dynamics. That said, the United States can push for a mediation between the KRG and Baghdad, ending the current aggressive relations and stopping the spread of PMUs in recaptured regions. Ending the conflict, while keeping the KRG a formidable political, economic, and security force in Iraq will at least prevent an unchecked rise of Shia in Iraq. Preventing further perceptions of insecurity in Iraq’s Sunni populations will require a concerted effort from the United States, the Iraqi government, and other regional partners to strengthen anti-corruption efforts and rebuild Sunni Iraq’s infrastructure, economy, and trust in the political system.

Rebuilding the Sunni region of Iraq will improve their relative economic standing in Iraq, which would most likely lead to a stabilization of the political balance between the three major political groups. If Iraq’s Sunnis feel that they are an equal economic player in Iraq, then they would be more likely to perceive themselves as politically powerful and equal to the Kurds and more importantly, the Shia. Strengthening anti-corruption efforts will strengthen Sunni beliefs in the government’s effectiveness and impartiality. Any such effort cannot be biased against one particular group, but must be impartial to not upset any other group and promote fair and effective governance by all political groups. 

If the current trends of Sunni alienation and hostility towards the KRG continue, the power imbalance between the Shia, Kurds, and Sunnis will only worsen. Sunni alienation has led to the rise of ISIS and its predecessor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq. After the Kurdish vote and the subsequent campaign to isolate the KRG, the power imbalance has only become more pronounced and noticeable. The increasing presence and rising power of Shia PMUs is only aided by the instability and hostility after the Kurdish vote, the devastation of Iraq’s Sunni region, and the campaign against ISIS. Ending the hostility between the KRG and Baghdad and strengthening the economic, political, and security standing of Iraq’s Sunnis should be the top priority of the United States in Iraq going forward.

*  *  *

Jacob Kennedy is pursuing his M.A. in Middle East Studies at George Washington University. He currently works in the Department of Justice and has previously interned in the Policy Planning Office of the Department of State.

Photo licensed under CC-BY-2.5.