As war rages in Iraq to drive back the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL) from the large swaths of territories it has seized, the Shia-led government appears to be building a new order in Baghdad.
Last week, Iraqi military chiefs announced that the “Baghdad Fence”, now being erected on the fringe of the capital, is to protect it from “criminal acts of the terrorists groups”.
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More immediately, the first phase of the “Baghdad Fence”, which the army began building on February 1, is a 100km security barricade that includes a wall and a trench around the sprawling city.
As detailed by the Major General Abdel Amir al-Shimari, the commander of Baghdad Operations, a 3m-high blast wall and a 3x2m trench will be built along the full length of the barrier.
However, on Saturday Haider al-Abadi, the Iraqi prime minister, dismissed the plan to encircle Baghdad with a concrete wall. “Baghdad is the capital of all Iraqis,” he said in a statement.
At first glance, a security plan to protect the city, which also includes guard towers and electronic surveillance equipment, looks realistic. Yet the idea of a fence separating the capital from the rest of the country seems nothing short of an admission of failure.
From a security perspective, the barrier could protect the capital from assailants infiltrating mainly from Sunni-dominated areas, but it could hardly thwart suicide bombers operating in ISIL’s sleeper cells inside the city.
A careful analysis of the Iraqi landscape, following the ISIL’s blitzkrieg in summer 2014, shows that Iraq’s three main communities are using whatever skills and potential in their possession to draw the lines of their prospective states in northern, central and southern Iraq.
The main problem with the fence, therefore, is that it put the focus more on politics than on security. In that sense, the new line will be a physical divide that will set back the prospect of communal peace in a post-ISIL era and confirm what many Iraqis have been saying and fearing about the partitioning of their country.
Iraqi Sunni leaders have voiced concern that phase one of the barrier, which extends north and northwest of the capital, is taking a strange route.
It eats up territories belonging to the Sunni-dominated Anbar and Salahaddin provinces and would inevitably harden into the future political border, allowing the Shia-controlled Baghdad much more land.
The bottom line is that the land grab around the capital reinforces worries about a creeping partitioning of Iraq, a scenario on the agenda of many local and international stakeholders, that divides Iraq into three – a Sunni state, a Shia state and a Kurdish state.
A careful analysis of the Iraqi landscape following the ISIL’s blitzkrieg in the summer 2014, shows that Iraq’s three main communities are using whatever skills in their possession to draw the lines of their prospective states in northern, central and southern Iraq.
Since the standoff with ISIL began, Kurds have captured vast swaths of territory in the so-called disputed areas, including the oil-rich Kirkuk province, and declared that these are now part of the autonomous Kurdistan Region Government (KRG).
Last month, Masoud Barzani, the KRG president, told Kurdish political parties that a referendum on Kurdish independence should take place before the United States presidential election in November.
Earlier, Barzani told the British newspaper The Guardian that the international community had started to accept that Iraq would never again be unified and that “compulsory co-existence” had been proved wrong.
As Barzani’s independence drive takes momentum, Iraqi Shia are holding on to land outside the traditionally known Shia-dominated provinces.
Since they started their counteroffensive against ISIL’s fighters, the Shia militias have swept over much of the villages and towns east and north of the capital, overrunning Sunni-majority areas in what it is now called the Baghdad belt.
In many towns in the ethnically and sectarian mixed province of Diyala, Kurdish Peshmerga forces and Shia militias are reportedly forcing Arab Sunnis to leave their homes under charges that they are ISIL’s sleeper cells or sympathisers.
For months, Shia soldiers and militias have been busy building a network of trenches and earth barricades around hotspots such as Jurf al-Sakhar, west of Baghdad, Samara in the north, and areas in Diyala to the west.
These barricades seem to be intended to protect the capital and Shia-populated cities from incursions. But it also indicates that Iraqi Shia are readying themselves for Iraq’s break-up and that they are drawing a border to separate these areas from the Sunni heartland.
On the other hand, the war against ISIL has also changed Iraqi Sunnis’ mindset. As ISIL’s fighters are being pushed back from cities they occupied in the 2014 advances, the future of the Sunni-populated territories is increasingly under discussion.
Facing high-handed, unilateral actions by Iraqi Shia and Kurds, a growing number of Iraqi Sunnis are now seeking an autonomous region in Iraq that will address their fears of marginalisation and give them a bigger say in running their own provinces.
If we take reports of plans under way to create a Sunni region within an Iraqi confederation after ISIL’s defeat at face value, the re-mapping of the Iraqi provinces on ethnic and sectarian lines then becomes self-explanatory.
But there the Iraq break-up scenario ends.
Scepticism will linger about whether partitioning Iraq is inevitable. Something is shifting and it is not too late. There are increasing signs that many Iraqi Kurds, Shia and Sunnis are opposed to the partitioning and believe that a functioning state could still keep them together.
There are also signs of international and regional concerns that Iraq’s disintegration will be catastrophic for the entire Middle East. While the world seems to keep looking on Iraq, it remains to be seen how this concern is interpreted in concerted efforts to stop the downslide.
Iraq is in chaos, but it is not yet beyond redemption.