As recently as mid-May, Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had good reason to feel confident. The 30 April elections looked set to deliver him another term in office, this time with a more convincing mandate than four years ago, while his opponents in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) were on the back foot, challenged by Baghdad’s strong-arm tactics over their ambitions to export oil independently.

Post-Saddam Iraq will always be a frail state founded on… a thin sense of national identity

Ramzy Mardini, Atlantic Council

Fast-forward to 10 June, the day the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis), took Iraq’s second city of Mosul as the government’s security forces melted away, and Al-Maliki’s humiliation is complete. With insurgents taking a series of other towns, from the Turkmen city of Tal Afar in the far north to Samarra and Tikrit within range of Baghdad – and Kurdish peshmerga forces now in control of the oil city of Kirkuk – the prime minister’s position has never looked weaker.

A position confirmed on 19 June, when Baghdad requested US air strikes against the militants as a battle raged around the Baiji oil refinery, Iraq’s biggest.

A fragile Iraq

Rarely has the Iraqi state looked as fragile or as divided on sectarian lines as it does now, as thousands of heavily armed Shia parade defiantly through the streets of Baghdad, responding to a call to arms from the Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

The KRG’s forces now command large tracts of disputed territories such as Kirkuk. There are currently no Iraqi forces left in the north of the province, which previously was home to 17,000 soldiers, said one KRG source. Much of the Sunni-dominated region west of Baghdad remains in the firm grip of militias that are splinter groups of Al-Qaeda.

The speed of the Isis advance may have been a surprise, but the crisis has been brewing for some time and many analysts say it was inevitable. After all, the city of Fallujah to the west of Baghdad has been in the hands of jihadist insurgents for most of this year.

But there are concerns the rot goes deeper than the embarrassment of military defeats to better-motivated rebels. “The reality is that post-Saddam Iraq will always be a frail state founded on weak institutions, a thin sense of national identity and a dysfunctional political system,” says Ramzy Mardini, a non-resident fellow at the US-based Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “The fall of Mosul is just one inflection point in the slow and long-term unravelling of a state built on patronage politics.”

Iraq is situated at the heart of the regional and sectarian balance of power. Once a power vacuum was created with the toppling of the Baathist regime and the upending of its institutions, Iraq was bound to experience a never-ending nightmare, says Mardini.

The emergence of a jihadist-dominated ‘caliphate’ stretching from Aleppo to Tikrit, showing scant regard for the border drawn up by British and French colonial powers nearly a century ago, is a challenge not just for Al-Maliki’s Iraq, but for regional stability as a whole. While Syria’s bloody three-year conflict has clearly fed the sectarian mood now sweeping across the Middle East, it is the engulfing of oil-rich Iraq – supposedly stabilised as a democracy – that is generating panic among regional protagonists.

The death rites have been read for Iraq before. The sectarian bloodbath that reached its crescendo in the 2006-07 period had also appeared to spell the end of the country as a unified state. The subsequent success of the US’ surge strategy and the stabilisation of the security situation in much of Iraq – albeit engendered in part by the sectarian cleansing of mixed areas – dampened the talk of the division of the state into its ethno-sectarian components.

Sectarian focus

That all changed in 2011, following the withdrawal of US troops and the growing accumulation of power by Al-Maliki. Once named prime minister, despite his State of Law coalition winning fewer seats than his non-sectarian rival Ayad Allawi’s Iraqiya block in the 2010 elections, Al-Maliki began to exercise power in a more overtly sectarian manner. Within days of the last US forces leaving Iraqi turf, Al-Maliki ordered the arrest of the country’s most senior Sunni Arab politician, vice-president Tariq al-Hashimi. He disbanded the Sunni Sahwa militia that had done much to quell the insurgency and ramped up pressure on the Kurds.

In the words of Joost Hiltermann of the Brussels-headquartered International Crisis Group, Al-Maliki gutted nascent independent institutions of their powers and brought them under his direct control.

“The mistake that Al-Maliki made was his failure to deal with Sunni inclusion,” says Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis (Inegma) in Dubai. “Immediately after the US pulled out, the first person he went after was his Sunni vice-president and that set the tone for the tension between the communities – in addition to the fact that Sunni communities, especially in Anbar, weren’t getting what they wanted from the centre.”

That has got Iraq where it is today, says Karasik. “The Sunnis are exacting revenge because they want greater inclusion in the running of the country, and a switch in terms of the leadership,” he says.

The prime minister’s failure to invest state institutions with authority and legitimacy has rebounded on him. The speed of the collapse of the Iraqi army when confronted with Isis firghters numbering in the hundreds rather than thousands, is a reflection that many soldiers had precious little allegiance to the central government in the first place.

Many Iraqis see no prospect of a restitching together of the torn national fabric, with the border with Syria now existing only in name and national security forces ceding control of key northern cities to the KRG and Isis. The break-up of Iraq into an Iran-dominated south, an independent Kurdistan and a Sunni/jihadist dominated northwest region is now a real prospect.

KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani told the BBC on 17 June that it would be hard to conceive of a resolution as long as Al-Maliki remains in power, and has recommended an autonomous region for Sunni Arabs as a potential solution.

Troublingly, there is no foreseeable limit as to how far the situation can escalate. “Disputes don’t necessarily get resolved in Iraq,” says Mardini. “They sit there, neglected and unreconciled, and fester only to re-emerge with greater intensity and complexity.”

Iraq is an important component to regional stability and the world’s energy markets. Whether or not it can be salvaged is uncertain. Facts on the ground are changing for the worse, and it is unlikely to reverse course towards the way things were before. 

Although partition is often proposed, it is not something that can be pre-engineered and enforced, even if it does emerge as the territorial reality as Iraqis themselves change facts on the ground. Some leading supporters of Al-Maliki have called for him to create an inclusive government of national salvation to prevent the fragmentation of the country.

The possible intervention of Iranian and even US forces will do little to reinvigorate Iraq as a united state, even if they prove ultimately able to roll back the stunning territorial gains made by Isis and its allies.

The ultimate defeat of Isis is far from assured. Though many Mosul residents fled the city as Isis troops entered, when it comes to choosing between jihadists and the Iraqi army, many Sunni Arabs prefer to take their chances with the former. On the ground, Isis has been cautious in action, not allowing itself to be stretched or distracted. Even in Mosul, it has only secured the western (Sunni Arab) half of the city, leaving the eastern and Kurdish-dominated half well alone.

Isis support

Isis’ position is strengthened by the Iraqi army and police’s loss of nearly one-third of its 250 combat battalions, as well as the loss of vehicles and equipment. It will be difficult for the federal government to retake insurgent-held cities to the north of Baghdad. Though some estimates put the actual number of Isis fighters as low as 3,000, it can count on the support of large numbers of local insurgents.

There are wider ramifications from the crisis. “The success of Isis is dangerous for the region,” says Mardini. “Its rise will not only demonstrate the effectiveness of non-state actors in securing interests in the Middle East, but also generate Shia counter-movements against it. Thus, Shia militancy will grow as a response to Isis’ success, perpetuating cycles of sectarian conflicts inside and outside Iraq.”

The flagrant disregard shown by Isis militias for colonial borders does not render Iraq a failed, Somalia-style state. The current crisis is the consequence both of Al-Maliki’s authoritarian rule and the country’s susceptibility to neigbouring Syria’s conflict. The message to the Iraqi leadership is simple: fix the politics give its diverse communities a greater stake in the running of the country, and Iraq could still emerge intact.