Much of the recent analysis of the Islamic State’s sweep into Iraq has followed a sectarian narrative. Many have focused on linking the rise of the militant group with Sunnis’ disenfranchisement and growing anger at the way former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki systematically excluded them from power. Others have viewed this as a “crisis a century in the making” and the death knell for the post–World War I order, leaving religion, and not the state, as the primary unit of analysis.

Maha Yahya
Yahya is director of the Malcolm H. Kerr Carnegie Middle East Center, where her research focuses on citizenship, pluralism, and social justice in the aftermath of the Arab uprisings.
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So, too, have some of the subsequent policy recommendations, in particular suggestions that partition along religious and ethnic lines is the best solution to Iraq’s long-standing problems. Such analysis is not only shaping the military response to the crisis, but also the long-term solutions to it. This sectarian perspective makes the breakup of Iraq a self-fulfilling prophecy.

While Maliki no doubt excluded the Sunni community from political power with disastrous impact, the roots of Iraq’s current crisis reach far beyond sectarianism. For many Iraqis, theirs is a struggle for their rights as citizens and not the age-old religious conflict portrayed by international commentators and Iraqi politicians, including Maliki. Even as efforts are under way to recapture territories overtaken by the Islamic State in June 2014, tackling the country’s complex social and economic problems is essential for Iraq’s long-term recovery.

Maliki’s successor, Haider al-Abadi, has pledged to address key grievances of the Sunni community. But he also needs to work on restoring confidence in Iraq’s political system and improving the lives of all Iraqi citizens.

Partition and Its Problems

The Islamic State’s push across Iraq in the summer of 2014 has largely been viewed in sectarian terms, and the crisis has led policymakers and politicians back to a familiar sectarian proposal to heal Iraq’s long-term ills: the partition of the country into Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish components.

Among the most prominent is U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, who in a recent op-ed endorsed a “functioning federalism” for Iraq. Biden’s comments recalled a landmark proposal he put forward in 2006, when he was a U.S. senator, advocating a solution for Iraq modeled on the Dayton accords that ended the Bosnian crisis by dividing that country into ethnic federations with separate armies.

However, the fracturing of Iraq into three smaller entities, each with its own sectarian identity, would leave many of the country’s deepest troubles unresolved. And the approach risks amplifying the tensions among Iraq’s Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish populations as they struggle over borders, security, resources, and political power.

In a larger regional context of intensifying sectarian polarization, a notional Shiastan would easily fall under the influence of Iran, which has deepened its ties to oil-rich Basra. A Sunnistan could provide a safe haven for the Islamic State to continue its campaign for a transnational caliphate that spans across Iraq and Syria and act as a destabilizing force across the region. In turn, this would likely increase the radicalization of different groups as they seek to emulate the Islamic State. 

Such a partition could also set a precedent for rethinking the boundaries of the modern Arab nation-state far beyond Iraq’s borders. Indeed, Islamic State fighters are already propagating this thinking, proclaiming the end of Iraq as a modern nation-state and the death of Sykes-Picot, the French-British treaty that drew the borders of countries of the Levant. Beyond the Levant, some groups, including Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia and Libya, have already pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph.

The breakup of Iraq would eradicate close to seven centuries of accumulated histories and cultural exchange, and prompt new waves of ethnic cleansing and the displacement of millions of individuals from their homes and communities. This is particularly critical in the ethnically mixed areas of Diyala and Saladin Provinces as well as the Nineveh valley, named for the great Assyrian city, where the Islamic State has already undertaken a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

The July 2014 edict from Islamist fighters demanding that the Christians of Mosul either convert or leave rendered the city, for the first time in its history, without a community that had helped shape its identity for centuries. Brutal attacks, murder, and displacement of other minority communities that reside in the valley—including Yazidis, Turkmen, Shabak, and Shia—are dismantling the very moral and cultural edifice of a region  that once took pride in its plural identities.

There are clear indications that many Iraqis still reject this kind of sectarianism. A recent poll undertaken for the World Values Survey found that more than 81 percent of Sunnis would prefer a separation of religion and politics. Perhaps not surprisingly, support for secular politics among Iraq’s Shia, whose history of marginalization and persecution under the previous and ostensibly secular regime of Saddam Hussein has shaped their identity and cultural consciousness, was just 34 percent. But both Sunni and Shia tended to define themselves as Iraqis rather than as Muslims or Arabs.

Data from the same poll show that more than 89 percent of Iraqis see themselves as a part of Iraq, irrespective of their ethnic or religious background or geographic location, and more than 88 percent consider democracy the best system of governance for the country1. More tellingly, with the exception of Kirkuk, the majority of Iraqis polled trust neither their capital (60 percent) nor their political parties (88 percent), also irrespective of ethnic background or location. And there was a marked preference for politicians who promote national interests over those who hold strong religious convictions, the poll found.

While the poll was conducted prior to the latest conflict, the results suggest that many Iraqis understand that they will not fare well under a religiously based political system. They also indicate that despite all its hardships, the nation-state of Iraq still works as a reference for many Iraqis; however, it they want it to work differently.

A Broader Set of Citizen Concerns

In many respects, Iraq’s turn to subnational identities has not privileged any one community. Inequality and poverty have affected wide swaths of Iraqis, irrespective of sect or ethnicity. The breadth of socioeconomic  problems can be seen in the incidence of poverty across different governorates. In 2007, the highest poverty headcount (defined by the World Bank as the percentage of the population whose per capita expenditure falls below the poverty line) was registered in predominantly Shia Muthanna (49 percent) and Babil (41 percent), and mixed Saladin (40 percent). These areas also experienced the most severe poverty.

In addition, Iraqis are increasingly dissatisfied with their standard of living, according to a recent Gallup poll. Iraqis overall rated their lives significantly worse in 2011 than in previous years. Around 20 percent of Iraqis (excluding those in more prosperous Kurdistan) said they had trouble affording food for their families—up from 10 percent in 2009.

Similarly, access to health and education services is affected by a rural-urban divide far more than a sectarian one. Deteriorating development indicators in the country also cut across sectarian and ethnic lines. For example, the highest percentages of moderate to severe stunting were found in the predominantly Sunni governorate of Anbar, mixed Baghdad and Diyala, and predominantly Shia Najaf. Housing shortages and inadequate housing are spread across most provinces while illiteracy—which reached 20 percent of the population in 2010, scattered across Iraqi territory—continues to rise.

In this context, many Iraqis in recent years have increasingly focused on securing a decent living, as equal citizens, and fighting a pervasive sense of injustice. Those concerns spilled onto the streets during a February 25, 2011, “day of rage” across the country. From southern Basra to the northern cities of Kurdistan, Iraqi poets, writers, journalists, and ordinary citizens from all ethnic and sectarian backgrounds gathered to protest corruption, high unemployment, and poor services, and to demand greater political and civil rights. The crowds drove the governor of Basra and the entire city council of Fallujah to resign. 

Demography Is Not Democracy

At the heart of the challenges facing Iraq today is the best approach to the governance of a plural society within one country. While the Iraqi constitution guarantees equal rights and fundamental freedoms to all citizens, the country’s political elite and the governance system put in place after the U.S. invasion in 2003 have focused more on the differences between communities and less on the common bonds among them. 

At the central level, Maliki excluded Sunnis from various tiers of governments, consolidating his control over the political process and the security apparatus—and undermining already fragile state institutions that had been burdened by decades of sanctions, regional wars, and internal conflict. A polarized regional context as well as decades of divisive identity politicspatronage-based networks, rampant nepotism, cronyism, and legendry levels of corruption all played a role in facilitating his policies. 

At the regional level, although provincial councils and governors are elected locally, Maliki allowed little opportunity for self-governance. Revenues from the provinces are channeled through Baghdad, where much of the money often stays. Even Basra, which provides around $50 billion in revenue each year from oil and natural gas, accounting for around 75 percent of total government receipts, has only seen a tiny fraction of that money returned.

Those financial constraints, coupled with the central government’s veto power over infrastructure projects, has resulted in severe underspending on critical services at the provincial level and paved the way for profound human development deficits. For example, in 2011, Basra was allowed to spend only 3 percent of its allowance. The pace of building has been slow, and communities across Iraq remain deprived of basic services including electricity, adequate water supply, and sewage. This has led a number of provinces—both majority Shia and Sunni—to request local autonomy in decision making and spending in 2011 and 2014, requests that Baghdad promptly denied.

The International Factor 

While there are many domestic explanations for Iraq’s current crisis, it has also been nourished by a regional and international political tug of war that has transformed the country into an open arena for global jihadism.

The U.S.-led invasions of 1991 and 2003 and the decade of sanctions in between devastated the country on multiple fronts. Syria cultivated Islamist militants in Iraq and facilitated their moves into the country, providing both a key pillar in its regional bids for power and help in undermining its own political and military opposition. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar continue to vie for influence in Iraq.

These foreign powers among others have forged relationships with various domestic players and factions in Iraq, many with clear sectarian overtones, undermining the country’s political process. And they share responsibility for what comes next.

International actors and Iraqi politicians must look beyond the current campaign to defeat the Islamic State as they consider immediate and long-term solutions to the country’s problems. Even as military efforts to recapture territories controlled by the militants continue, a renewed focus on effective state-building and inclusive political processes is essential, as well as the restoration of trust between communities and citizen confidence in the state. Regional and international powers can support this process by focusing on institutions rather than on individual politicians, as they did with Maliki. The civilian capacities of the state can play an important role in pushing forward a nationalist agenda and restoring the faith of Iraq’s different communities in their government, and the international community has a role to play in this regard, too.

Before the Dust Settles

Iraq’s newly appointed prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, and his team face gargantuan tasks. Theirs is a crisis government, which must reverse the military sweep of the Islamic State, regain control of national territory, counter some of the fallout from Maliki’s political legacy, and address Iraq’s long-standing socioeconomic crisis. Formed as a national unity government with representatives from all political parties, it will also need to deal with potential spoilers, including Maliki, who is currently one of three vice presidents and was recently accused of organizing anti-Abadi demonstrations.

So far, Abadi has made a few political moves in the right direction and has promised to address some of the key demands of the Sunni community. These include a greater share in Iraq’s legal and political branches of power as well as amnesty for the thousands of Sunnis arrested without trial during Maliki’s rule. The Sunni political leadership along with other groups are also seeking a devolution of key administrative and financial powers to the provincial level and the establishment of local military forces under the direction of provincial governors to ensure their security.

Abadi has begun discussion on at least three issues: the establishment of a higher security council that includes the president, prime ministers and speaker of parliament; the devolution of some financial powers to the provincial level; and the formation of a national guard under provincial authority. (The concern expressed by some that the formation of the national guard, if not carefully considered, may pave the way for the additional disintegration of the country by creating Sunni militias facing Shia militias, may be mitigated by the establishment of the proposed security council.) In this respect, the October appointment of interior minister Mohamed Salem al-Ghabban, a key member of the Badr organization, one of the largest and most infamous Shia militias, does not bode well for the country. He is also trying to address the bureaucratic legacy of Maliki, who staffed ministries with his cohorts and made a series of senior appointments days before leaving office.

However, even if Abadi were to live up to these promises, it would not be enough to restore confidence in Iraq’s political system. Recuperating the role of the state as one for all of its citizens and addressing the daily grievances of all Iraqis as members of a national rather than subnational polity would do so. This effort could include quick, short-term initiatives, such as rapid infrastructure investments in roads, schools, and health clinics, as well as expanded social assistance, such as conditional cash transfer programs for vulnerable families. These can create jobs and provide a tangible improvement to individual lives. Such actions by the Iraqi government may also loosen the dependence of some Iraqis on sectarian political parties for sustenance and help them reassert their citizenship rights as enshrined in the constitution.

Other challenges will probably remain on the agenda for some time in the absence of a genuine national dialogue to mitigate their repercussions and the political will to address them. These include repeal of the de-Baathification law demanded by the Sunnis, amendments to the oil and gas law demanded by the Kurds to allow them to export directly, and a new senate law. The politicization of the country’s security forces, including the army, and far-reaching corruption (Iraq ranked 171 out of 177 countries and territories surveyed by Transparency International in 2013), which have undermined state structures and facilitated the rapid spread of the Islamic State, must also be addressed. From a societal perspective,  tackling the fallout from decades of violence, dictatorship, sanctions, occupation, and civil war, particularly widespread ethno-sectarian displacement, is a political imperative, albeit one with tremendous challenges. Local peacebuilding initiatives that foster dialogue at the communal level and allow citizens most affected by the conflict to assume responsibility for building peace can play an important role in the success of this process. 

Finally, and most broadly, the governance arrangements suitable for Iraq must, in the words of a onetime adviser to former president Jalal Talabani, “give the Sunnis a share in power, reassure the Shia that they will not be ostracized, and ensure that there is no going back on self-rule for the Kurds.”2  The ongoing discussion to decentralize some administrative power and give provinces more autonomy in spending is a positive step in addressing a key trigger to this conflict.


Looking at Iraq purely through a sectarian lens may make the identity-based partition of the country an obvious solution and a self-fulfilling prophecy. But it is an approach that would inflict further harm on the country and the region.

Instead, the breadth and complexity of Iraq’s problems must be recognized. The country’s troubles cut across sectarian divides, and addressing them will require both structural changes in how Iraq is governed, and quick investments to improve the lives of ordinary Iraqis.


1Analysis of raw data collected for the World Values Survey, 2013. World Values Survey Wave 6 2010-2014 Official Aggregate v.20140429. World Values Survey Association (

2Interview, August 2014.