04/17/2015 09:31 am ET Updated Jun 17, 2015

Iraq's Muddled Future

Chad Thomas via Getty Images

Despite a full endorsement from U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington D.C., Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi continues to face mounting pressures on all fronts. As a petro-state, Iraq's economy is being drained by the low price of oil. Even with recent military advances, Iraq's existential struggle against ISIS will persist for the foreseeable future. Purchasing new weaponry, rebuilding war-ravaged infrastructure and the humanitarian costs associated with internally displaced persons will further burden Iraq's dwindling budget.

Abadi sought assurances for continued U.S. engagement in Iraq, particularly on the military front. After pouring billions into Iraq since 2003, the U.S. remains generally committed but not unconditionally. Beyond $200 million in humanitarian aid, President Obama made no explicit commitments. The U.S. is primarily demanding guarantees for a more inclusive state and institutions that are far more representative of the broad cross-section of Iraqi society. Although ISIS remains Iraq's most immediate threat, the sectarian division which fuels ISIS' fire symbolizes Iraq's greatest long-term threat.

Compared to his predecessors, Prime Minister Abadi's outreach to minorities, particularly Sunni and Kurds, is generally on the correct path. Since assuming power in late 2014, Abadi has started disbursing oil revenues to the Kurdish Regional Government and streamlining the Iraqi military which thus far resulted in the removal of 300 officers. However, Abadi still remains behind the curve, largely due to considerable damage done by his predecessor. His efforts will fall on deaf ears should half-measures result. Only real substantive progress will make the necessary differences that can alter Iraq's course.

The long-awaited, and desperately-needed, national consensus has alluded Iraq for too long. It remains fundamentally essential to Iraq's unity. It must be marked by broader ethno-sectarian political representation at the national level and greater devolution locally. Also needed is a more equitable distribution of the benefits and entitlements rendered by the nation's oil wealth across Iraq's public spectrum. Furthermore, over time Iraq's security forces must reflect and, above all, respect national diversity. In the long-term, if powerful Shiite militias are not eventually reined in and integrated into the military, Iraq's plight will only worsen.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Abadi is currently confronting an enormous dilemma. Although in principle Iraq needs a real representative national defense force, the Iranian-backed Shia militias presently fighting alongside the army are playing a critical role in recent government advances against ISIS. Restraining them now could prove counterproductive on the battlefield, as demonstrated by the current situation in Ramadi. On the other hand, the stronger they become, the more difficult it will be to curb and absorb them into a national force at a later stage. Due to the immense implications involved, this complex situation must be skillfully managed with qualified international assistance.

Since late 2014, nearly 60 countries have joined the international coalition against ISIS and constant pressure on these extremists is necessary. Despite being on the defensive in Iraq in recent months, ISIS still controls the majority of Anbar province and Mosul, Iraq's second largest city. In Syria, ISIS firmly holds its ground and still retains the potential to expand further over time. Control and administration of vast territories also imposes enormous burdens and responsibilities which consume valuable resources. On the other hand, ISIS' recruitment continues unabated and illicit activities feed its coffers.

Recent looting by Shiite militias after the takeover of Tikrit from ISIS by government forces only further divides and nourishes ISIS' narrative of Sunni victimhood and Shiite oppression. As a complex mosaic of diverse sects and ethnicities, Iraq's future remains bleak if there is no considerable change in the status quo. Without it, Iraq will exist only in name.

In historical hindsight, one cannot exclude the possibility that Iraq is already beyond the point of no return. De-facto partition may already exist and fragmentation is irreversible. In fact, the line may have been crossed some time ago rendering futile current efforts to maintain national unity. Nevertheless, buying into this narrative will only make it a self-fulfilling prophecy. For now, Iraq's central government in Baghdad, the U.S. and allies of the anti-ISIS coalition prefer to proceed on the basis of a unified Iraq.

In order to ensure the survival of the Iraqi nation-state, the most realistic way forward may be re-organizing Iraq as a loose confederation of autonomous provinces with considerable decision-making powers. The central government in Baghdad representing Iraq's diversity would have explicitly defined powers determined by broad national consensus. Underpinning Iraq's internal security would be a NationalGuard also reflecting the state's diversity. Building credible national institutions will require many years. Hence, re-organizing Iraq largely from the bottom-up, as opposed from the top-down, may ultimately present the most practical approach if Iraq is to remain a united entity.