Why It's Time for Iraq to Split into Three Countries

FILE - In this Sunday, Aug. 26, 2012 file photo, Syrian rebel fighter Tawfiq Hassan, 23, a former butcher, poses for a pictur
FILE - In this Sunday, Aug. 26, 2012 file photo, Syrian rebel fighter Tawfiq Hassan, 23, a former butcher, poses for a picture, after returning from fighting against Syrian army forces in Aleppo, at a rebel headquarters in Marea on the outskirts of Aleppo city, Syria. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf petro-powerhouses encouraged a flow of cash to Sunni rebels in Syria for years. But now they face a worrying blowback as an al-Qaida breakaway group that benefited from some of the funding storms across a wide swath of Iraq. Gulf nations fear its extremism could be a threat to them as well. But the tangle of rivalries in the region is complex: Saudi Arabia and its allies firmly oppose any U.S. military action to stop the Islamic State’s advance in Iraq because they don’t want to boost its Shiite-led prime minister or his ally, Iran. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen, File)

I wasn't surprised at all when a group of Islamic militants defeated the Iraqi army and took control of almost all Sunni provinces within a week. Not because the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) were better armed or fought a right cause, but because I know that historically, there is no love lost between the Iraqi people and the army.

For three decades, Saddam Hussein, who was a Sunni, used the army to suppress and kill the majority of his people and now for ten years, Iraq's Shiite rulers have been doing the same to the Sunni population. The Sunnis' main grievance today is that the army raids their homes in the middle of the night and detains their men for alleged membership in the Baath party that was dissolved eleven years ago.

With so much bad blood between them, it is unlikely that Iraqis will ever trust the army to protect them or defend the country. In fact, most people in Iraq fear the police or soldiers more than they may fear insurgents.

I have seen with my own eyes the work of Iraq's old and new armies and the crimes they have committed against civilians. In 1988, the army attacked my town, Halabja in Kurdistan and killed 5,000 people in one day. Later they caught more than 100,000 Kurdish villagers and transported them to the deserts where they were shot and buried.

Three years later and after the Kuwait war, Saddam's army suppressed a Shiite uprising in the south and killed tens of thousands of people. After the Americans toppled him in 2003, I went to southern Iraq and saw the families dig up the mass graves. I stood on the edge of many graves in Hilla, Abu Ghreib and Kirkuk and watched quietly the bones of women, children and university students taken out of the sand.

All that changed in Iraq and, in the past ten years, the Shiites have been the rulers. But they too have used the army to get back at the Sunnis. I have visited Hawija, the small Sunni city that fell to the ISIS last week. It is a desolate, dusty and windswept city where Iraq's Shiite government has made life even more difficult for them by denying them the most basic services.

I have spent many a day in Mosul with ordinary people and members of the army. In Tikrit, Falluja and Ramadi, I used to have lunch all too often with tribal chiefs and people who later became insurgents. Likewise I travelled the length and breadth of the Shiite provinces, from Kut to Karbala, from Najaf to Basrah.

Nowhere did I hear a good word about the country's politicians. There was deep mistrust for the authority. The Shiites who dug up the bones of their loved ones hated Saddam's regime or any Sunni ruler that may come after him. The Sunnis I used to hang out with resented the country's new Shiite politicians and called them traitors, American agents and Iranian puppets.

The suspicion between Shiites and Sunnis is obviously historical, but Iraq's modern army in the past several decades has also played a key role in deepening the grudge. Kurds, Shiites and Sunnis have firsthand experience with the army. They know how it is a tool in the hands of the government and how merciless it can be when it has to suppress one group or another.

That is why Iraq's Shiites and Kurds revolted against Saddam's army whenever they had a chance and why the Sunnis have been hunting Iraqi soldiers without mercy. When I was covering the war in Baghdad several years ago, almost everyday an army recruitment center was car bombed, and I would see the torn bodies of young recruits in the aftermath. Even from the very beginning of the insurgency, the army was the main target. I saw how inhumanely Shiite soldiers treated Sunni prisoners and how gruesomely Sunni militants killed Shiites.

That animosity has dragged on until today and that is why the ISIS fighters have such an easy time in the Sunni areas. Ordinary people in Mosul or Falluja may not like the group's interpretation of Islam, but they see it as fighting an army dominated and run by Shiites.

The Kurds for their part, cannot even stand the thought of Iraqi soldiers stepping on their land. At the same time they feel betrayed by how they helped rebuild Iraq after 2003 but were gradually shunned out of government posts and finally their share of the budget was cut by Baghdad.

It is always said that Iraq sits on a sea of oil. But it also sits on many mass graves. For a people who have been abused by each other for so many years, the best solution is to go their separate ways. Iraq has gone beyond the point of keeping Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds under one roof.

Some might be concerned about massive population shift in case of a split, but the violent sectarian war in the past decade has already taken care of that and cleansed--voluntarily or by force--entire cities and neighborhoods.

At this point the United States shouldn't get involved either, thinking it can right all the wrongs. Drone attacks might kill a few insurgents, but they cannot rebuild the trust long lost among Iraqis.

Fighting in Iraq