People are talking about Iraq being partitioned into three parts lately: a Kurdish state, a Sunni Arab state, and a Shiite Arab state, but none of this is new. This was part of the discussion before and during the height of the Iraq War around 2006. Future Vice President Joe Biden was even ridiculed for suggesting it back then.
However, this idea now seems considerably closer to becoming a de facto reality with Sunni Arabs taking over much of the lands between Iraqi Kurdistan and Baghdad to the south, the disintegration of Iraqi government forces outside of their southern, Shiite core, and the mopping up of disputed territories by the Kurds.
Iraq has been riddled with ethnic and sectarian troubles since the beginning of its existence as a modern country. The British set up Iraq by combing the three former Ottoman vilayets (provinces) of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra into one country. This map, shown in Figure 1, which seems to be roughly in line with other maps that I can find of the division of Ottoman provinces, shows the just how close the borders of Iraq reflect this arbitrary combination of provinces. Figure 2 provides a current map of Iraq’s borders cropped to roughly the same proportion.
The Kurds are divided between Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran rather than being part of one state (even one where they are a minority). This severely weakens their position in all the states. The borders pre-WWI didn’t really matter since they were all part of an overall Ottoman state (with the exception of Iran) and that state was based around Islam and not nationalism. However, with the carving up of states and the rise of Arab (and Turkish, but that’s another matter) nationalism the Kurds found themselves in a precarious position. They were divided and could, unfortunately, be suppressed more effectively this way.
The Kurds rebelled periodically at this new arrangement and were frequently crushed. The result in Iraq was that the Kurds were gradually pushed further towards the mountains and the areas that were once Kurdish majority or mixed became steadily Arabized. This was seen by Saddam as a way to secure his rule long term since Sunni Arabs were more cooperative to his Sunni Arab dominated, nationalist state. In fact the Kurdish population in Kirkuk province was reduced from nearly 50% according to the 1957 census to a little over 20% according to the 1997 census.
In light of this history the events since the overthrow of Saddam can only be described as a best case scenario for the Kurds. They have steadily gained territory and developed a stable and economically growing state within a state. When the Kurds had autonomous states under the Ottoman Empire, as shown in Figure 3 provided here they dominated considerable portions of northern Iraq.
By the overthrow of Saddam in 2003 the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that had managed to gain some territory only controlled the core of this former territory with no access to the major oil fields in the north around Kirkuk. Figure 4 shows just how much Kurds lost before they could regain their autonomy.
Despite this are being greatly reduced the Kurds have been able to unofficially regain control of areas outside this area by resettling Kurds back to areas they were forced out of by Saddam’s regime. In fact they likely have undone so much of the ethnic cleansing that a referendum on including the Kirkuk government into the KRG may even be approved by a popular vote. As a result the Iraqi government has continually blocked the referendum from occurring.
All of this is a moot point, however, because as a result of the ISIS offensive and the resulting collapse of central government control over northern Iraq the Kurds have stepped into the vacuum and taken over the vast majority of claimed territories. Minority inhabited areas such as those inhabited by Christian Assyrians, Shiite Turkmens, and Shabaki and Yezidi Kurds are now under mostly Kurdish control. Whereas before they could look to the Shiite dominated central government as an alternative to the KRG to protect them from Sunni Arab extremist groups the total rout of the Iraqi military in northern Iraq has left only the latter.
Most of the historical regions, as shown in Figure 3, of Tasini (where Yezidi Kurds are dominant), Soran, and Baban which were historically dominated by Kurds are again under a Kurdish control (Figure 5). With the exception of southwestern Kirkuk province, the city of Tal Afar, and the claimed parts still controlled by the Shiite central government the Kurds in Iraq now have everything they want.
The Mandali and Badra areas in the south which are populated by Shiite Kurds who are not significantly persecuted by the Shiite friendly central government anyway are probably a stretch too far anyway.
Southwestern Kirkuk province (Al-Hawija district) is and has historically been heavily populated by Sunni Arabs with little Kurdish presence anyway. Controlling this territory would only be a headache and the Kurds now control the major oil fields around Kirkuk to fund their state even without this area.
The only significant loss (and by that I mean non gain) for the Kurds has been the city of Tal Afar, which is under ISIS control. However even here the Kurds still control the areas north of Tal Afar, which are not historically Kurdish inhabited, and have a connection to Sinjar to the west. On top of this Tal Afar itself is a Turkmen inhabited city and it’s always possible the Kurds could take it over in the future.
ISIS, on the other hand, has little prospect of taking on the Kurds, especially while fighting the central government. The central government also has little prospect of taking on the Kurds while fighting ISIS and allied Sunni Arab groups and even if they defeat ISIS they’ll be too exhausted and the Kurds will likely be too firmly entrenched in their new territories by then.
When I drew up (more like filled in) an amateur map of a best case scenario for the Kurds years ago when people were talking about partitioning Iraq into three states I never really expected it to happen, but it’s managed to happen. Here’s the map by the way.