- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2016

The liberation of Mosul from the Islamic State group could also be the starting gun for the breakup of Iraq as the country faces re-emerging tensions along traditional sectarian and religious lines.

As Iraqi, Kurdish and Sunni and Shiite militia units advanced on Iraq’s second-largest city Tuesday, long-standing doubts about the viability of Iraq as a unified nation — including those voiced by then-Sen. Joseph R. Biden — have resurfaced, along with proposals to partition the country into autonomous Sunni, Kurd and Shiite regions. Such ideas largely fell by the wayside as Mr. Biden and President Obama came into office backing a strong central government in Baghdad.

But now some Iraq watchers are warning that the divisions that long plagued Iraq will only grow deeper after the ouster of the Islamic State terrorist group, also known as ISIS and ISIL, from its last major stronghold in the country. Distrust toward the central Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad is so high in Sunni stretches of northern and western Iraq that the “solution may lie in strong regional autonomy for these areas, potentially leading in the long-term to an outright independent state,” according to a white paper released this week by the conservative Hudson Institute.

“Areas of Sunni-majority population — the governates of Anbar, Ninawa, Diyala, Salah Uddin, and parts of Kirkuk — distrust Baghdad’s ability and willingness to provide security for the Sunni population and reintegrate it into Iraq’s social and political fabric,” according to the study. “Even as some of the territory lost to [the Islamic State] since 2014 returns to Baghdad’s control, the same searing question persists about whether the Shia-dominated government, under considerable sway of Tehran, can co-exist with Sunni Arabs.”

The political uncertainty loomed as the fight for Mosul entered its second day. Tens of thousands of Iraqi and Kurdish forces churned through villages on the outskirts of the city.

Iraqi commanders said the forces pushed forward on the southern and eastern sides of the city, where an estimated 5,000 Islamic State fighters are dug in.

Despite reports of roadside bombs, booby traps and clashes in some areas, the U.S. military, which is leading an international coalition providing air and ground support for the offensive, rejected the notion that the campaign was not progressing.

“It would be absolutely crazy to suggest on Day Two that we’re stalled already,” Pentagon spokesman Jeff Davis said.

At the White House, President Obama told reporters that he is confident the offensive will succeed but “it’s going to be a tough fight and a difficult fight.”

Mr. Obama, who appeared at a news conference with Italian Prime Minister Mateo Renzi, also played down concerns that Washington and Baghdad were unprepared for what many expected would be a messy humanitarian crisis from civilians fleeing the fighting in Mosul.

“This has all been part of the coalition planning process, in conjunction with the United Nations,” Mr. Obama said. “We have put together plans and infrastructure for dealing with a potential humanitarian crisis that are as extensive as the military plans.”

On Capitol Hill, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce, California Republican, urged Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to escalate planning for humanitarian relief dramatically as the fight for Mosul heats up.

Ideological fight

An influential Iraqi analyst warned that the al-Abadi government faces an ideological challenge even if the Islamic State is defeated on the battlefield.

“The big risk is that this offensive will drive [the Islamic State] out but fail to get rid of its ideology,” Munqith Dagher, a Sunni political adviser and pollster, said in an interview during a visit to Washington on Tuesday.

“With global oil prices as low as they are right now, the central Iraqi government will not have enough resources to rebuild, not only in Mosul, but across Anbar province and basically anywhere territory has been taken back,” he said.

Mr. Dagher said a failure by Baghdad to provide services to civilians in areas liberated from Islamic State control could inspire a new generation of extremists that would be even worse than the Islamic State.

The Hudson Institute paper’s authors, Michael Pregent, a former U.S. intelligence official with longtime experience in the Middle East, and Kevin Truitte, a research assistant at the institute, explore in detail the feasibility of carving out an autonomous Sunni region of “West Iraq” — covering much of the territory in Iraq once held by the Islamic State.

“An autonomous or independent West Iraq within the geographic confines of Iraq must offer economic viability,” they wrote. “The population must be able to develop its own economy to provide a feasible alternative to the existing system centralized around Baghdad’s authority and oil produced by Iraqi Kurds in the north and the Shiite majority Basra in the south.”

An autonomous government in Western Iraq could tap natural resources there, including massive phosphate deposits as well as the Akkas gas field, which is said to hold some 5.6 trillion cubic feet of reserves near the border with Syria, the authors write.

“If Akkas came online, it could provide an alternative source of gas to Europe,” the paper said. “Western countries could use that option to weaken Russia’s control over Eurasian energy markets.”

A Washington-based advocacy group calling itself the Committee to Destroy ISIS, meanwhile, enthusiastically welcomed the Hudson study and said the long-term security in liberated Sunni areas would depend on giving residents something of their own to fight for and protect.

The group circulated a map to reporters depicting an Iraq divided roughly along ethnic and sectarian lines. The map shows a “State of West Iraq” spanning a large swath of predominantly Sunni territory that includes the cities of Mosul, Baqouba, Fallujah, Tikrit and Ramadi; a “State of Kurdistan,” including Kirkuk and Irbil, for the Kurds; and a “State of East Iraq,” with Baghdad as its capital, for the heavily Shiite south.

“As the Kurdish peshmerga take the lead in the fight for Mosul, it becomes clearer still that an independent Kurdistan will one day be a reality,” the committee said. “What about the Sunni Arabs? Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi and other key cities in West Iraq are predominantly Sunni.”

“Ten years ago, then-U.S. Senator Joe Biden talked about dividing Iraq into three autonomous areas,” it said. “A decade later, that idea appears to have been ahead of its time.”

Dave Boyer contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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