As Islamic extremists have advanced farther into Iraq’s heartland, the Obama administration has tried to avert all-out civil war by urging the Shiite Muslim-led government to share more power with alienated Sunni and Kurdish minorities.
But if Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki continues to resist a political settlement, the United States and its allies could turn to an idea that was first floated — and roundly condemned — during the height of Iraq’s sectarian fighting eight years ago.
Many analysts and officials, including some in the Obama administration, believe that a possible fallback plan for reducing strife is to split Iraq into three largely autonomous enclaves — corresponding roughly to the dispersion of Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds around the country — linked by a weak central government.
Such partition will not be left to the US government, but conditions on the ground will dictate what happens next.
Given its incredible surge in both Iran and Syria, ISIS may well continue its surge all the way to Baghdad; the US government has not sent nearly enough troops to defend it against a a country torn by ethnic and religious strife, and rankled by a Shiite government which has consistently marginalized its Sunni population. Drone strikes are risky at best, and - as Iran proved - drones can be shot down, if one knows what one is doing.
It is clear that in the short term, one way or another, Al-Maliki will go. Kurdistan's leadership has said that it will secede from Iraq "within months", but how the rest of the country will sort out will depend on how Iraq can (or wants to) defend itself from the ongoing onslaught of ISIS.