Image Credit: Luis Vazquez/ © Gulf News

Exeter, UK: In recent months I have had the opportunity to meet with a range of Iraqi politicians from the principal blocs that make up the composite of the political system — Iraqiyya, which is the umbrella movement home to Sunni-associated parties; the Daa’wa party of incumbent prime minister Nouri Al Maliki and that remains as Shiite-focused today as when it was formed in 1957 in Najaf; and the Kurdistan Alliance, which includes both the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) led by the President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Masoud Barzani, and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) led by the recently incapacitated President of Iraq Jalal Talabani.

While clarity is something that is very difficult to achieve when viewing the modern politics of Iraq, with its swirling currents and counter-currents of intrigue, alliance, and enmity, one aspect stood in all of these engagements in brutal starkness.

There was no sense whatsoever of unity, in terms of a shared vision of Iraq and their place within it, between any of these political representatives. Indeed, the divisions between them seem to be so raw and fetid that they would openly discuss their focus as being one of pursuing their own communal interests, with the issue of Iraqi commonalities being at the bottom of the page, if on it at all.

This should not be surprising — Iraqis have, after all, endured a decade of instability since the deposal of Saddam Hussain in March 2003, on top of decades of existing under one of the most savage and brutal authoritarian regimes ever known.

In addition, they have had to contend with the realities and legacies of an occupation that at best was ignorant of Iraqi society and at worse dismissive of it. They are also inflicted with the legacies of short-term solutions identified for security issues that have led to a myriad of long-terms problems that have to somehow be resolved, one way or another.

The result is that, ten years after regime change, talk of Iraqi integrity — whether political or social — is tragically counterfactual. By March 2013, the government of Al Maliki – a figure who has shown remarkable tenacity in terms of keeping his grip on the top office and dominating his hold on the levers of power, while also showing an almost unbelievable ability to create division and cleavages among the elites of his country — exhibits an odd combination of strength and weakness.

Strong, Al Maliki undoubtedly is: he has crafted the institutions of state into being his own personal preserve, and ultimately loyal to him. He is also hugely popular, as an individual politician and as the leader of his party, Daa’wa, among the Shiite electorate.

But he is also weak: in building a regime that is clearly sectarian he has destroyed his ability to build a coalition that spans the broad chasms created by religious and ethnic differences that riddle the country.

Now, Sunni regions of Iraq, to the north and west of Baghdad, are openly contesting his leadership following the sentencing to death of Vice-President Tareq Al Hashemi and events that led to the recent resignation of former Finance Minister Rafi Al Eissawi.

The Kurds, too, are openly confronting Baghdad as they strive to protect the autonomy they have earned to date, and move to gain even more. Recent military stand-offs in the disputed territories claimed by the Kurds, including Kirkuk, that have seen Al Maliki deploy the Iraqi army and Barzani mobilise the Kurdistan peshmerga are indicators of future patterns, rather than exceptions to the norm.

With Baghdad’s passing of its 2013 budget that gives the Kurds only a fifth of the $3.5 billion (Dh12.8 billion) they need to pay oil and gas companies working their region, the scene is set for an escalation in this dispute.

Political puzzle

Iraq is now more divided than ever. The reason for this is straightforward — the political puzzle of Iraqi power, and the rules of the Iraqi political game, are now set up in such a way that they mitigate against political or social cohesion.

While western scholars in particular may continue to argue that Iraq has shown a unified nationalism in the past, they are now, to be frank, sounding shrill. Iraq is now a very different place — one in which the politics of the local permeates upwards as well as downwards, and recognising this is essential to any understanding of how Iraq will develop.

While it may sound nice, to western post-ethnic liberal ears, to talk about how ideal it would be to have a party in place that could appeal across communities, it is, by the acknowledgement of Iraqi politicians themselves, not going to happen.

If any single politician, current or aspiring, attempted to fight a campaign on such a platform, he, or she, would not have a hope of securing anything other than the most limited of support.

Iraqi politics is now set up to mobilise according to identities; whether it has always been so is now question to ask of interest to those concerned with Iraq’s history, rather than future.

Restructuring of state

So what will happen? Prediction is always a dangerous game, and particularly so with Iraq, but the question has moved away from ‘will’ Iraq fragment, to ‘how’ will it do so?

Fragmentation is already happening, and it is obvious why this is the case: for the foreseeable future, Iraq will be dominated by a Shiite government; in these days of heightened sectarianism across the region, Sunnis will remain marginalised and resentful; and the Kurds, now strongly entrenched in their autonomy, have more or less developed the means by which to defend their gains and be the architects of their own future, rather than observers of it.

If Iraq is to maintain its integrity as a unit, then to do so requires the restructuring of the state to empower regions defined by their local identities. This does not mean a tripartite division — Iraq is more complex than this when federal applications are considered — but it does mean that an Iraq of its regions is a distinct possibility, with Basra, the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala, Sunni areas, and the Kurds all being stakeholders, in addition to the powerful Shiite interests of Daa’wa and the religious establishment.

Whether this will happen through tortured negotiation — maybe with Al Maliki using federal negotiations as a compromise to maintain his hold on power — or by declarations of independence that promulgate contestation and conflict, will become apparent in this year leading to the next parliamentary elections of 2014.

What will Iraq’s relationships across the region then look like? In answering this important question, it is not too necessary to guess. Indeed, Iraq’s relations with the region are already being formed.

The Al Maliki government, smooth in its foreign policy orientation of seemingly mimicking Turkey’s ‘zero problems’ approach has been less smooth in projecting what it actually wants and how it will achieve it. Indeed, as one observer in Washington DC noted to me recently “Iraq has foreign relations, but it has no foreign policy.

The result, in the Gulf, is suspicion of Baghdad’s intentions, and fear of what may happen — perhaps without good reason. But the prime minister’s relations with the region will become clearer as the situation in Syria unfolds.

Caught between a rock and hard place — realising the looming fate of the Al Assad regime, but also having to satisfy Iran’s expectations to support the Damascus-Tehran lifeline — Al Maliki’s future foreign policy orientation will be influenced greatly, if not dictated, by Iran’s geopolitical gaze.

The Kurds, for their part, are already engaging in foreign affairs independently of Baghdad. Their attempts to gain the business, respectability, and even support of regional states has proved successful — to such an extent that the age-old opposition held by Turkey to anything resembling in any way a Kurdish success in the realms of state-building has been transformed into real, and meaningful support.

Across the Arab Middle East too, the Kurds have proved adept at building ties that bind through economic and financial Trojan horses, and their play in Syria is set to bring them even closer into the fold of Arab Gulf states in the future.

Threats abound, of course. There are, in Iraq and in the wider region, a mass of variables and unpredictable jokers that could easily send any particular situation off on a totally unforeseen trajectory.

But it is becoming less clear as to what these variables and jokers would be. Al Qaida in Iraq is once again active, and benefiting there from what is happening in Syria, but their actions in Iraq, have only served to enforce the tendency toward fragmenting; corruption is indeed endemic across Iraq, but it has been so since 2003, and was so before.

Corruption is therefore a constant of the current formative moment; and foreign influences in Iraq have already established their presence, and are again working — wittingly or unwittingly — in favour of Iraq fragmenting.

Iraq never stabilised following the surge of US troops in 2007, which brought an end to the worst of the sectarian conflict. Instead, the contestation moved from the street to the political elites — elites that had, by and large, maintained the progress of the difficult political process established in 2003.

Now, the elites are showing their inability to find compromise — if they ever had it to start with.

While it is possible that the recent moves by anti-Maliki leaders (including Barzani, Allawi, and the resurgent Ahmad Chalabi) may once again find a way for Iraq to continue to muddle through, it would be wise to be forewarned to the possibility that perhaps thresholds have been passed in Iraqi social and political life — thresholds that make the task of standing up the unified Iraqi state and people a task for those politicians, who are now very much more communally-minded than ever, more futile than ever before. 

Gareth Stansfield the Sharjah professor of Arab-Gulf studies at the University of Exeter and a senior associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute