BAGHDAD — Iraq's parliament met briefly Tuesday with a view to start forming a new government, and with the focus on whether Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki can stay in power. Another looming question, though, is should this war-torn country be divided into three sectarian zones as a way to bring peace?
Last month's blitzkrieg by Sunni Islamic militants across Iraq's north and west has fragmented this country into distinct regions – the Shiite majority in Baghdad and the south, the minority Sunnis in the north and the semi-autonomous Kurds in the northeast.
The United States is pushing al-Maliki to form a unified government with all three groups, but some wonder if that is possible at this point.
"It is so difficult to predict what will happen," said Omar Mohammed, a dentist in Diyala in eastern Iraq. "I would accept any solution to stop the bloodshed, even if it was a confederation or division."
The quick success by the militants, an al-Qaeda splinter group now calling itself the Islamic State, stems in part from a power vacuum. Citizens in Mosul — the second largest city in Iraq — and other Sunni towns have long resented al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government as corrupt. They often welcomed the Islamic fighters as an alternative to Iraqi soldiers who behaved more like occupiers than protectors. The soldiers put up almost no resistance and fled before the Islamic State advanced.
"Al-Maliki should step down," said Saif Salah Aldeen Al-Azzawi, a Sunni student in Baghdad who believes the government catered only to Shiites and was too sympathetic to Iran. "Establish a national unity government that rewrites the constitution. They don't believe in coexistence. Their hands are full with Iraqi blood, working for Iran to make Iraq its rear garden."
Iraq has long had sectarian clashes and divisions. The Sunni minority actually held power for centuries until the 2003 U.S. invasion ousted longtime dictator Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. When al-Maliki, a Shiite, became prime minister in 2006, Shiites then dominated his government and got support from Shiite clerics leading nearby Iran.
Recently, as the Islamic State secured the north, and Shiite leaders staked out the south, Kurdish forces asserted their presence in a third zone, moving quickly to seize the oil-rich town of Kirkuk. The Kurds field a separate, well-trained army in Kurdistan, an autonomous region in northeastern Iraq. Massoud Barzani, Kurdistan's president, has told the BBC he plans to hold an independence referendum within months.
Even Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu weighed in over the weekend. Citing the chaos in Iraq, he called for establishing an independent Kurdistan as part of a broader alliance between Israel and moderate forces across the region.
The idea of dividing Iraq into three segments isn't new. Vice President Joe Biden, when he was a U.S. senator in 2006, proposed decentralizing Iraq's government by giving each group – Kurd, Sunni and Shiite – three largely autonomous regions with a viable central government in Baghdad.
Whether Iraq's factions continue to clash or negotiate a peaceful end is the issue now facing fearful Iraqis who remember the widespread sectarian fighting and anti-American sentiment that peaked in 2007, prompting then-President George W. Bush to launch the so-called surge of American troops to quell the violence.
"Division is the only solution, provided that this division should be consensual," said Barzo Ibrahim, a civil engineer in Erbil, in Kurdistan. "This is the most difficult part of the task."
But even the Shiite majority has its divisions. After the Islamic State's victory in Mosul, Shiite clerics called for a counteroffensive, leading to the re-emergence of Shiite volunteer militias, including the Madhi Army under Muqtada al-Sadr, a religious leader who controlled a section of Baghdad and fought U.S. troops in the past.
"The problem is that Sunnis don't accept the rule of the majority," said Abu Qusai, 40, a civil engineer in Shiite-dominated Baghdad. "Sunnis want to get the power. If they get all the positions — ambassadors, army generals and ministers — they will still say, 'We are marginalized.' They want the prime minister position. They want to rule."
The renewal of Shiite militias in response to Islamic State suggests that conditions are ripe for renewed sectarian violence, said Guido Steinberg, a Middle East expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.
"I'm most worried about the possibility of a religious civil war," Steinberg said. "We have not seen sectarian violence on a larger scale until now. It has been organizations like (the Islamic State) and others against the army. But as soon as the whole thing turns to fighting between religious groups, militia against militia, then it gets really dangerous."
Iraq's new parliament ended its first session Tuesday after failing to make any progress in choosing the country's new leadership, including a prime minister. Acting speaker Mahdi al-Hafidh called off the proceedings after less than two hours after most of the 328-member legislature's Sunnis and Kurdish lawmakers did not return after a short break.
While many Iraqis discussed their country's disintegration with an air of inevitability, some were pessimistic about the outcome of a breakup.
"Division will bring us no peace and prosperity," said Zaki Al-Baghdadi, an engineer in Baghdad. "External influences in Iraq are massive now. What would happen if the country was turned into smaller states? The solution is to find a secular system that respects all Iraqis, based on the same rights and duties."