24 June 2014

Iraq is finished. Welcome – not that you will be – to Sunnistan

June 23 2014

Gathering dust in the villa where I am staying in Baghdad is a copy of what must be the most rewritten guidebook of modern times.

It's a travel guide called "Iraq then and now", published by Bradt, a British firm that specialises in countries where the Lonely Planet fears to tread.

Rather like their tome on North Korea, their Iraq edition is somewhat hostage to events, necessitating hastily written addendums for the benefit of the few adventure tourists who come here.

Already, my villa’s 2008 version – penned when Iraq seemed to be finally emerging from its brutal civil war – seems somewhat out of date. And as a friend who contributes to the guide wearily informs me, the deadline for the latest edition was looming earlier this month – so yet again, the guide may have a section saying "As we went to press …"

This time, however, I fear the changes may be far greater than before. And in coming years, Bradt may well have to produce not one guide to Iraq, but two or three – for all the signs are right now that the country may be about to split for good.

In the north and west, where Isis militants and ex-Ba'athists now hold Mosul and Tikrit, the thinking now is that the Iraqi government may never get them back.

Not only is the Iraqi army badly run and demoralised, it is up against an insurgency that has already proved one of the most lethal in the world, having held its own for nearly a decade against the US military.

While the odd US air strike might help the Iraqi security forces a bit, the most they might hope for is retaking Tikrit, a relatively small place.

Mosul seems out of the question, as do Fallujah and Ramadi to the west, which Isis seized five months ago and has successfully defended ever since.

To put this in a British context, it's the rough equivalent of London losing control of Birmingham and the Midlands plus Bristol and the West Country, plus many towns in between.

In effect, a new state is being carved out, broadly along the lines of Iraq's Sunni Muslim heartlands, where Sunnis will be free from the writ of the Shia-led government that they say treats them as second-class citizens.

Given that the Sunnis did much the same when they were in power under Saddam, it was always a safe bet that a Shia regime might look on them less than sympathetically.

But even so, I can't imagine Sunnistan, or whatever it will be called, being a happy place, much less warranting a Bradt guide of its own.

For a start, the fledgling nation's new masters will most likely be the religious zealots of Isis, rather than the more secular, nationalist Ba'athists with whom they have allied.

Debate has been raging as to which of these two factions is piggybacking onto which, but informed sources appear to think that it is Isis who have the whip hand.

Which, of course, means turning Sunnistan into a 14th-century caliphate, with no boozing, no dancing, and no fun of any sort. Save, perhaps, for watching the odd crucifixion of the a hapless foreigner with his Bradt tourist guide.

The only hope will be that Isis makes the same mistakes in Iraq as their predecessors al-Qaeda did, whereby their sheer brutality ultimately sparks a popular rebellion.

But it could be several very painful years before that happens. And in the meantime, Sunnistan will be a pariah state, fused with Isis turf in Syria to become the living embodiment of the Islamic State of Iraq and al Shams.

It isn't just Sunni Iraq that is at risk of breaking away though. Recent events may also see the Kurdish north, which is semi-independent anyway, sever all what remains of their fractious relationship the rest of the country.

There is fury in Baghdad at the way Kurdish troops occupied the oil-rich city of Kirkuk after the Iraqi army melted away, a prize the Kurds are now unlikely to hand back.

Many Shias believe the Kurds deliberately plotted with Isis for it to happen this way, and while that may sound like the stuff of conspiracy theories, the facts either way do not matter. In Iraq’s paranoid, vicious political sphere, the version of events that people wish to believe is the one that often becomes the truth.

All of which will turn what was Iraq into a trio of small, quarrelsome statelets, only one of which – Kurdistan – seems to have much going for it. Sunnistan will be a nightmare, while Baghdad and the south will have to survive with the Middle East's equivalent of Somalia on its doorstep, doing its best all the time to destabilise its neighbour.

It's a gloomy picture, and as a regular visitor to this country, I hope I re-read this blog in a few years' time and wonder what rubbish I was spouting.

Perhaps, instead, I will be sitting with a beer by the river Tigris, pondering the latest edition of the Bradt guide to a Happily Unified Iraq and planning a nice trip up to the thriving city of Mosul.

But I'm not the only one who's pessimistic. Many Iraqis I know have been spouting this apocalyptic vision for years. Every time I come here, I meet up for a discreet drink with my old translator, a disillusioned Saddam-era tank commander who is partial to a foul cocktail of whisky and Turkish lager (I call it a Chemical Ali).

And every time we have clinked glasses – through bad times and not-so-bad – he lights a cigarette, swigs his potent brew, and declares sadly: "Iraq is f–––––, my friend."

This time, I fear he might finally be right.

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