Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and breakdown of the Iraqi state, ethno-sectarian partition has become a popular political mantra. The assumption is that a federal state based on three autonomous regions — Sunni Arab, Shiite Arab and Kurd — is the most realistic way to stabilize Iraq and keep its borders intact.
This claim has revived alongside the devastation and communal distrust created by the Islamic State (IS) and the territorial, demographic and political changes resulting from the campaign to counter IS.
The problem is that a tripartite Iraq has little bearing to realities on the ground, particularly in a post-IS context. Sunni Arab, Shiite Arab and Kurdish communities may be religiously and ethnically distinct and concentrated in particular regions, but they have also been dispersed across territories since the IS onslaught and are deeply fragmented.
Internal boundaries and the uneven distribution of resources remain disputed between and within groups, creating additional challenges to reordering borders along clear ethno-sectarian fault lines. Instead of three self-sustaining regions, Iraq has become an amalgam of hyper-localized entities seeking self-rule and self-protection, while remaining dependent on Baghdad and prone to proxy conflicts.
A deeper look at Iraq’s three main communities reveals the complexities of reordering internal boundaries along ethno-sectarian lines. The Kurds may have gained extensive territories in the anti-IS campaign; however, their de facto borders have been drawn in blood and not through negotiation. Key Sunni Arab groups that largely populate the disputed areas, as well as Yazidis and Assyrians, regard these territories as their own, and demand some form of autonomy. Some seek integration into the Kurdistan Region while others want to remain tied to Baghdad. None want to see strong regions emerge alongside their own borders.