As Iraqi Shiites celebrate the holy month of Muharram and its key holiday of Ashura (4 November), it can be argued that radical sectarian mobilization among them has risen to a level unprecedented in modern Iraqi history since 1927, when a series of episodes prompted calls among the Shiites of Iraq to form their own separate state. This year, too, visions focusing on the possible separation of the Shiite-majority provinces of Iraq as a separate political entity are back on the agenda.
The last time such ideas were being considered in an even remote way was in 2005, when Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim of SCIRI launched his scheme for a single Shiite federal entity stretching from Basra to Najaf. It was the first time since 1927 that anything in the way of territorial separation of Iraqi Shiites had received any serious attention whatsoever. However, back then the project was characterized by only fragmented levels of support, with most Iraqi Shiites still speaking in the name of a unitary state. An even more radical movement to separate the south entirely had even less of a support base.
However, following the rise to prominence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2014, Iraqi Shiite discourse on the Iraqi state appears to have changed quite dramatically – in the direction of separatist solutions. It is true that some of the talk of a separate Shiite entity, often referred to as the “Sumer” project in a reference to one of the ancient civilizations of Iraq, may have gained extra prominence because of the proliferation of social media, meaning that a wider array of Iraqi Shiite voices are accessible to outside analysts than at any point in history. However, it is noteworthy that also more established political parties among the Iraqi Shiites appear to be warming up to ideas that were considered a taboo just a few years ago. A case in point is the State of Law alliance of former PM Nuri al-Maliki and current PM Haydar al-Abadi. In a first, during Ramadan, a key website supportive of Maliki accorded much prominence to an article that openly hinted at the possible secession of the Shiite areas from the rest of Iraq. Also, changes in the regional environment contribute to a greater push towards separatist solutions. Iran, in particular, has altered its approach to Iraq in a dramatic way since the emergence of ISIS. In unprecedented ways, it is openly acknowledging and even propagandizing its military support for the Iraqi government through the presence of Iranian advisors among Iraqi military forces deployed on the frontlines against ISIS. The confirmation by the Iraq parliament of an interior minister with a background in the Iran-sponsored Badr brigades arguably gives Tehran more direct influence in Iraq’s security forces than they had under Maliki.
The optics of the Iraqi battlefield look increasingly sectarian as well. In the north-west country almost all the territory recaptured by Iraqi government forces from ISIS are areas associated with Shiite minorities or Kurdish territorial claims. Also recent Iraq government victories in the Jurf al-Sakhar area in Babel, while covering Sunni-minority lands, essentially fall into a picture of wider Shiite consolidation in a core territory from Basra to Samarra.
There are however still some important exceptions to the general trend towards sectarian fragmentation in a territorial sense. This relates above all to Iraqi Sunnis that want nothing to do with ISIS. In a macro perspective this can be seen above all in Anbar, where several key areas including Ramadi still remain outside direct ISIS control. Those who say the quick fall of Mosul is sign that ISIS enjoys general Sunni Iraqi legitimacy will have trouble accounting for the continued existence of pockets of resistance to ISIS among Sunnis in Anbar. If the fall of Mosul to ISIS is proof that Shia discrimination of Sunnis is the underlying cause of the current troubles, then why didn’t all of Anbar also immediately fall? Also at the level of individual politicians, these tendencies can be seen. Provincial councils of Anbar and Nineveh alike continue to operate outside ISIS-controlled territory and repeatedly have condemned ISIS. Prominent Iraqi Sunni politicians like Usama al-Nujayfi have made a point of visiting the Shiite clergy in cities like Najaf and Karbala, which of course is anathema to the rabidly anti-Shiite ISIS.
Beyond this, many of the same historical and practical arguments against separatism that transpired in 2005 remain relevant. The Iraqi Shiites can offer no historical precedent for their separatist scheme, and the link to the old, pre-islamic Sumer civilization has of course nothing more to do with Shiites than with Sunnis (Saddam Hussein was also a huge Sumer enthusiast). And at the practical level, Iraq remains a multi-religious country whose disintegration would likely lead to huge numbers of displaced people, quite possibly creating human tragedies on a scale worse than anything caused by ISIS thus far.
With foreign military advisors of all descriptions pouring into Iraq and the concomitant internationalization of the whole debate pertaining to the future of the country, it becomes doubly important that Western pundits exercise caution when they go about attributing cause and effect in the current crisis. In particular, the notion that ISIS somehow embodies “legitimate Sunni demands” must be rejected. To maintain such a view is not only an affront to the large numbers of Iraqi Sunnis who bravely resist ISIS, often by putting their lives on the line. It also means accelerating a process towards a territorial fragmentation of Iraq that lacks historical basis and points towards an uncertain future.