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Iraq’s Brittle Nationhood

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Does it still make sense to think of Iraq as a country? Did it ever? The struggle for control of north-central Iraq among Sunni extremists, Kurdish forces and a Shiite-dominated government is a reminder that Iraqis are riven by history, religion and ethnicity. Nationhood was imposed by force and national institutions form a weak glue. The fall of a quarter of Iraq to rebels raises a question that came up in an earlier civil war, fought in 2006-2007 during the U.S. occupation: Might Iraqis be better off, and the world safer, with the country split into three autonomous regions or even separate states?

Jihadists of the Islamic State, strengthened by their participation in Syria’s civil war, have held territory in Iraq and Syria roughly the size of the U.K. since the middle of 2014. The group’s advances provoked the U.S. to launch a military coalition to defeat it. Extreme in its interpretation of Islamic law, Islamic State is far outside Iraq’s Sunni mainstream. Yet some residents welcomed the group as an alternative to the central government, widely regarded among Sunnis as oppressive. To fight Islamic State, the Iraqi government has leaned heavily on Shiite militias from the south, ubiquitous and violent during the U.S. occupation. Kurdish armed forces seized control of part of Kirkuk, an oil-rich city long coveted by the Kurds. Their leaders vowed to hold an independence referendum, once they could focus on something other than fighting Islamic State. Of Iraq’s 35 million people, 55 percent are Shiite Arabs, 19 percent are Sunni Arabs and 21 percent are Kurds.