The fissures that divide Iraq are widening, and may soon tear it apart

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Most Iraqis alive today have never known a time when their country was at peace. They’ve endured war with Iran that killed a million people, genocidal campaigns against Iraqi Kurds and Shiites, a decade of punishing economic sanctions, two Gulf wars that led to U.S. occupation, years of sectarian fighting, and now occupation of more than a quarter of the country by the radical jihadist group that calls itself the Islamic State.

That fighting has taken place on a fractured map, an Iraq that has always been divided into thirds: the south, populated by rural, religious Shiites; the north, a mountainous preserve of secular Kurds; and the centre of the country, a more urban area dominated by Sunni Muslims in a band that stretches from Baghdad to Mosul. This middle region is where political power resides, where ancient civilizations thrived, where arts and culture flourished, and where higher education has been more secular than religious.

The sum total of all the violence, however, is redrawing the boundaries, shifting the regions of power, and threatening the country’s very identity. The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State group, a coalition that Canada joined in September, is contributing to these dramatic changes. In the course of defeating the extreme IS brand of Sharia rule and its grisly means of executing captives, the once vibrant Sunni population could well be expunged, and a new Iraq may emerge: one that will be increasingly devoted to Shiism and will lean heavily on Iran. Such an extension of Iranian influence will bring new challenges to a West that is fearful of Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and growing regional power.

The old order was first shaken when U.S. forces occupied Iraq in 2003, defeated Saddam Hussein, and ordered the dissolution of the Iraqi military and the removal from government of all members of the ruling Baath Party.

A decade later we are seeing the consequences: The purge left an administrative vacuum, one that was filled by the growing majority of Shiites eager for power. Many Shia leaders and militiamen had spent years outside Iraq, taking refuge in Iran from Saddam’s blood lust, and wanted revenge. Their heavy-handed treatment of Sunnis incited the deadly sectarian conflict of 2004-07 in which tens of thousands died. Frightened Sunnis, lacking militias like those of the Kurds and Shiites, turned to extremist groups to protect their neighbourhoods and attack their Shia enemies.

Those radical Sunni groups would lead eventually to today’s Islamic State movement that occupies not only much of Iraq but also a large swathe of Syria. Such brutal behaviour as the recent murder by IS jihadists of a Jordanian pilot by burning him alive continues to strike fear and provoke rage across the region.

If the coalition and Iraqi forces succeed in defeating the so-called Islamic State – which is also sometimes referred to as ISIL or ISIS – some have predicted the breakup of Iraq into three independent states: Shia, Sunni and Kurdish. But if present trends continue, there may not be enough Sunnis to constitute a state; Iraq’s future may more likely include only a Kurdish state in the northeast, and a Shia state in the south and west. The Shia state, which would contain some of Shiism’s holiest sites, is apt to become an Islamic republic, closely allied to neighbouring Iran.

Travelling through Iraq, one sees clear signs that the power, investment and infrastructure are already moving to the Shia south and the Kurdish north – both enjoy large deposits of oil – while the central part of the country is being hollowed out.

Traumatized by their loss of power, terrorized by Islamic State movement’s brand of radical Islam, millions of Iraqis – mostly Sunnis and Christians – have fled their homes in the cosmopolitan city of Mosul, as well as in Samarra, Fallujah and Tikrit and many other towns and villages. Slowly but surely, Shiites are filling the void.

Even tribes composed of both Shias and Sunnis that have stayed behind, fighting for a country they want to save, are being torn apart from the inside, with Sunni tribesmen who support Islamic State fighters turning on their Shia cousins. “This disease makes people ready to kill their own father,” says Sheik Nadeem Hatem Sultan al-Tamimi, head of the large Tamim tribe in central Iraq. He lives with his three wives and the youngest children from his flock of 21 in a modest but well-guarded compound in Taji, north of Baghdad, just a few kilometres from the front lines that stand between the Islamic State jihadists and the Iraqi capital.

For a Sunni presence to be maintained inside Iraq, two things would have to happen: Islamic State movement must be defeated, and the Sunnis must return to their homes. The first is possible, although it may take a year or two; the second is not likely.

“We are in a steep downward slide,” says Sheik Nadeem, 62, one that began with Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait and the first U.S. war against Iraq. “Since then, it gets worse and worse.”

“There’s decay in the country – an absence of law and order,” he explains. “Gangs kidnap people for ransom; no one is safe on the street.” The result, he said, is that “people hide, and whoever is able has left the country.”

Iraqi Shiite fighters celebrate to mark the liberation of Diyala province from the Islamic State on February 2, 2015. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/Getty Images)

The Shia ascendency

Freed from Sunni rule by the election of Shia-dominated governments, the Shia south of Iraq is coming into its own, benefiting from its enormous oil reserves that have come back into production after several years.

A new international airport is doing booming business in Najaf, one of the most important pilgrimage sites in Shia Islam; and the city of Karbala, with another important shrine, is thriving. There’s a new mall, several high-rise hotels, and billboards advertising expensive new developments.

Young people in these Shia areas enjoy listening to the radio, which plays religious poetry and Koranic verses; take in religious festivals; and volunteer to serve in Shia militia units. There are no cinemas or concerts to tempt them.

Shia militias such as the Badr Brigade, along with Shia control of the Iraqi military and support from Iran, have guaranteed security in this region lately. But Shia leaders are taking no chances and have dispatched their militias to take the fight to Islamic State movement.

At the end of January, the Badr Brigade had celebrated the defeat of IS forces in several towns in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad. In the course of battle, numerous Sunni residents were killed and a number of Sunni mosques destroyed. The militias reportedly have no intention of letting the Sunni population in the area return to their homes.

Shiites see the rise of jihadists like Islamic State as part of a wider Saudi-backed movement that is the Shiites’ eternal enemy. “They have to be stopped,” said Layla Khafaji, a Shia member of Iraq’s parliament.

The split in Islam began immediately after the death of the Prophet Mohammed, in the seventh century: The Prophet’s family claimed that the leader of the faith should descend from Mohammed, beginning with Ali, his cousin and son-in-law (hence Shi’a, meaning followers of Ali). The unrelated companions of the Prophet opted to elect the next leaders from among themselves (hence Sunni, meaning followers of the traditions of the Prophet).

The division turned hateful three decades later when Sunni leaders had Ali assassinated at his headquarters close to Najaf in what is now southern Iraq. They then defeated his son, Hussain, in a battle at nearby Karbala, beheading him and murdering most of his family. Mourning for the loss of Hussain and his family is marked every year on an emotional day of sorrow known as Ashura that forms a central, distinctive feature of Shiism. Sunnis, who constitute 80 per cent of Muslims, view such Shia practices as heretical, though only extremist movements like Islamic State act on their antipathy.

Today’s jihadists, with their reign of terror and decapitations are “behaving exactly the way Sunnis did 1,400 years ago when they massacred the family of Imam Hussain,” Ms. Khafaji says. “It’s the same mentality.”

Ms. Khafaji, 57, who wears an ankle-length black abaya and a colourful head scarf pulled tight around her face, experienced the terror of Saddam’s Sunni regime.

Coming from a farming family in southern Iraq, Ms. Khafaji had been a star student at university in Baghdad. She graduated in 1981 as an electrical engineer, one of the few women in such a profession at that time. But she refused to join the ruling Baath Party, and found it impossible to find work. Eventually, she was forced to sign an “execution agreement”; by its terms, she agreed to be executed should she ever join an organization opposed to the government. Only then did a government-assigned position come her way.

Three months into the job, however, she was arrested, tortured for several months and convicted of anti-government activity – she had visited a woman whose brother was in prison. The death sentence she received in 1983 was commuted to life imprisonment, and she spent nine more years in jail.

Following Iraq’s defeat in Kuwait, the regime was pressured to release political prisoners, and Ms. Khafaji walked free. She fled the country for Canada, where she was given refuge. When Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003, she left Toronto to work for the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a Shia political party that won the second-largest number of seats in the 2014 election.

She says she has found her calling – she’s determined never to let a narrow Sunni regime take power again.

The Sunni position

The Islamic State organization has its roots in Iraq. It started out as al-Qaeda of Iraq a decade ago, dedicated to fighting the U.S. occupation. It then changed its name to Islamic State of Iraq and launched several attacks on Christian churches and Shia festivals. It moved its base of operations into Syria when the civil war broke out there in 2011, broke from al-Qaeda, and called itself Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. Last year, thousands of its fighters moved back into Iraq as part of a blitz attack in which a quarter of Iraq, including Mosul, the country’s second-largest city, was overrun in the span of a few days.

Anyone who doesn’t follow the IS interpretation of the true path of Sunni Islam is the group’s target. It has laid waste to churches and Shia mosques, executed thousands of people of all ages, enslaved hundreds of women from minority sects, and successfully resisted most counterattacks to date.

A senior Sunni imam at the 1,000-year-old Abu Hanifa mosque in Baghdad’s Adhamiyah neighbourhood insists that people must understand what provoked Sunni Iraqis to support Islamic State movement: Iran, the pre-eminent Shia state, which borders Iraq on the east, is running things here, complains Dr. Abdul Wahab al Samari, 41. “Our country’s military is completely dominated by the Shiites … and we have no [Sunni] militia to turn to for help.”

Indeed, Shia religious posters and banners are prominently displayed at Iraqi military bases and checkpoints throughout the country, underscoring the religious bias of these national institutions. And, because the Iraqi army is still not capable of tackling the jihadists on its own, Shia militias often fight alongside or instead of regular forces, adding to apprehension in the Sunni areas in which they are battling.

“People hear about [Islamic State fighters] burning Shia mosques and Christian churches, but six Sunni mosques in Diyala province were [recently] destroyed,” Dr. Samari says. “These acts were carried out by Shia militias.”

In Mosul, he says, before Islamic State arrived, the Iraqi soldiers, who were mostly Shiites, stopped Sunni weddings from taking place during the month of Shia mourning, and “forced people to observe Shia holy days – to wear black on the day of Ashura.”

The Sunni population welcomed Islamic State movement, he says, because “we are fighting for survival here in Iraq.”

The Christian exodus

Christians have been a part of what is now Iraq for 2,000 years – since the apostles Thomas and Thaddeus preached the Gospel here in the first century – making this one of the oldest continuous Christian communities in the world. Now it, too, is in jeopardy.

Yousif Abba, archbishop of the Syrian Catholic Diocese in Baghdad, notes that the Christian population in the country has dropped from 1.5 million a decade ago to about 300,000 today. In 2014 alone, the numbers fell by 500,000, he says. They’ve been driven out mostly by the fear of Islamic State movement and its forerunners, he says, adding that the general lawlessness in the country also has seen many Christians kidnapped for ransom.

“The Church is finished in Nineveh,” Archbishop Abba says, referring to the area around Mosul in the northwest of the country, captured by Islamic State fighters in June. The area includes the archbishop’s own home town of Qaraqosh, once the residence of 50,000 Assyrian Christians. Churches and anything that speaks of Christianity have been destroyed. Even if the invaders are expelled, “I don’t think people will ever go back,” he says.

The archbishop adds that the Church’s best hope of survival in Iraq is in Kurdistan, the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north, where tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have taken


A Kurdish Peshmerga fighter takes up position with his weapon as he keeps watch, on the outskirts of Mosul on Jan. 26, 2015. (Azad Lashkari/Reuters)

The Kurdish view

In the three northern provinces that make up Iraqi Kurdistan, it’s a different world. While Baghdad and central Iraq give off the odour of an urban area gone bust, Kurdistan is very much akin to a boom town.

After centuries of dreaming of a homeland, the Kurds are making it a reality. In Erbil, massive office and residential projects are taking shape along with a number of large modern shopping malls. In Sulaymaniyah there are dozens of new office buildings and several swank new hotels. Most of this is made possible because of the rich oil deposits in the Kirkuk area.

Historically, the area has been the subject of a tug-of-war with Baghdad: Both Arabs and Kurds claim the region. The Islamic State movement’s invasion, however, has worked to the Kurds’ advantage. Not only have the Kurds secured valuable areas around Kirkuk that the Iraqi army was unable to protect, but the wartime need for increased oil production helped resolve a dispute between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the government in Baghdad over the distribution of oil revenues.

While an influx of refugees and the fall in the price of oil have slowed things down, no one doubts Kurdistan’s long-term viability.

The region is supported by neighbouring Turkey, which is the single biggest investor in Kurdistan, and also by Iran. The commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ special al-Quds force, General Qasem Soleimani, has been directing military operations against Islamic State fighters from a base in Sulaymaniyah, in eastern Kurdistan, where the forces of former Iraqi president Jalal Talibani have been particularly close to Iran.

Some 800,000 Iraqis fled to Kurdistan from the fighting in central and western Iraq. The majority have been given refuge in the northernmost province of Dohuk, near the border with Turkey, where tent cities have been erected for the displaced people, including Yazidis, Armenians, Turkomen and other minorities.

Christian Arabs who fled from the Mosul area, however, have been given special treatment, reflecting the way Kurds distinguish between Christian Arabs and Sunni Arabs, the latter being their sworn enemy.

For centuries, Muslim and Arab dynasties found Kurds the most difficult of people to rule over; their frequent rebellions testified to their determination for independence.

More recently, Saddam Hussein’s attempts at ethnic cleansing and the Arabization of the Kirkuk area cemented the hatred of Sunni Arabs, a bond they share with Iraq’s Shia Muslims.

Iraqi Christian refugees are being housed in and around the capital, Erbil, and in Sulaymaniyah. Many have rented flats; others are being housed in public buildings. Hundreds of Christian Arab families have been sheltered in three unfinished malls in Erbil’s Kurdish Christian community of Ankawa.

One evening in December, there was a candlelight procession of thousands of Christians through the streets of this attractive neighbourhood. The Cardinal of Lyons had come that day with a French delegation to show solidarity with the Christians in Kurdistan as they celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Local Christians as well as Arab Christian refugees walked together.

Archbishop Bashar Warda, head of the Chaldean Archdiocese in Erbil, the region’s largest Christian congregation, is acutely aware of the plight of Christians, and he agrees with Archbishop Abba in Baghdad, that the last hope for the 2,000-year-old Christian community to maintain a presence in this area is in Kurdistan.

“Our numbers will be much smaller,” he acknowledges, and “Christians who come here to stay must learn the language” and be respectful of the Kurdish culture.

Mindful that many Kurds don’t want to live with Arabs of any kind, the Baghdad-born archbishop admits that, in Kurdistan, he never says he’s Arab. “I say I’m Chaldean,” he explains, referring to an ancient Semitic people that lived in Babylon but long ago were absorbed into the Arab masses.

“The whole Middle East is being remapped,” says Archbishop Warda, “and we must ensure that we survive the turmoil.”

Civilian children stand next to a burnt vehicle during clashes between Iraqi security forces and al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, June 10, 2014. (Reuters)

The fallout of lawlessness

The breakdown in law and order has led to rampant corruption – Transparency International says that Iraq is the most corrupt country in the Middle East – found at every level of government.

Just one example: Zuhair Chalabi, a former official in the Mosul government, describes how ousted governor Atheel Nujaifi took a percentage from every transaction. “Whether it was the purchase of cement, or contracts to provide oil or collect the garbage, he got his cut,” says Mr. Chalabi. “It amounted to millions of dollars a month.”

He cites several other examples of corruption in the military. Officers are known to buy commissions by paying off generals, and to shortchange soldiers in their command: If a soldier is to be issued 100 bullets, he may receive only 50; his commanding officer then sells the other 50 on the open market, perhaps even to Islamic State fighters.

A major source of income for some officers involves the phenomenon of so-called “ghost soldiers.” These are individual troops whose names are kept on the books even though the soldier has been given permission by his commander to go home for several months; his pay continues to arrive but is pocketed by the commander.

Another consequence of the lawlessness is an explosion in the number of incidents of sexual harassment of women. “There has always been a degree of harassment in this country,” says Prof. Bushra al-Obeidi, a professor of human rights law at Baghdad University. “But the level of such behaviour today is unprecedented.”

She and a team of graduate students documenting cases have found it to be prevalent in the court system (where prosecutors offer lenient treatment of prisoners in exchange for sexual favours), in universities (where professors offer better grades) and at military checkpoints (where women are often detained unnecessarily only so they can be groped).

In the offices of a religious foundation created to assist widows and divorced women, Prof. Bushra found that many men try to persuade these women to have sex by offering to enter into so-called “temporary marriages,” a practice that was banned under Saddam Hussein but that now has resurfaced thanks to parliamentary initiatives by Shia MPs.

Saddam Hussein may have been a ruthless dictator, but he did make sure of three significant things: that high-quality health care was freely available; that Iraq’s literacy rate was the highest in the Arab world; and that women enjoyed greater equality than in any other Arab country. That applied to protecting women from harassment as well, Prof. Bushra says.

And because of Mr. Hussein’s reputation for dealing with troublemakers, you didn’t flout his standards. “Men aren’t afraid of the authorities the way they used to be,” Prof. Bushra says.

Under the long-time dictator, the government also commissioned paintings and sculptures; funded orchestras and theatres; even provided for dance schools, albeit to glorify the nation and exalt its dictator.

Today, religious conservatism has ground down most of these arts. There are few cinemas in the capital and none anywhere else, except for Kurdistan.

The Music and Ballet School of Baghdad, a bastion of secularism, has seen enrolment drop 25 per cent in the past year, as educated professionals leave Iraq. (Ahmed Saad / For The Globe and Mail)

The Music and Ballet School of Baghdad has been a bastion of tolerance and secularism. Established in 1967, it draws talented students from all sectors of society, provides them with a good academic program, and teaches them at a high level of music or dance – all in co-educational classes. It became a showpiece for Saddam Hussein’s ambitious education and cultural reforms. Religious Shia children sit with secular Sunnis and both share classes with Christians. They mix, even in dance classes, where male and female students actually touch each other.

“This is the only mixed secondary school in the country,” says director Ahmed Selim Ghani. Such an approach encourages mutual respect, he emphasizes, and reduces sexual harassment.

The school engages music and dance teachers from Russia, France and Germany, and it survived the worst years of sectarian violence. Today, however, its enrolment is down to 300, a drop of 25 per cent from a year ago, and attrition looks to be a more permanent problem: It’s the educated professional people who tend to send their children to this school, and they’re the people leaving Iraq now.

It’s getting harder and harder to maintain the arts in Baghdad. Director Ghani plays contrabass in the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra, an institution few Iraqis have ever heard of. It continues to play concerts a couple of times a year, he says, but they’re never publicized, for fear of attack. People learn of them through word of mouth. “Tell Canadians about us,” Mr. Ghani pleaded. “We are desperate to hold on to this kind of culture.”

The Iraq that lies ahead

What we may find, after beating back IS fighters, is that the wave of Shiism that appears to be washing over central Iraq is irreversible – and that the possibility of a powerful new Shia state, with strong ties to Iran, is not a consummation devoutly wished by the West.

Shiite-led army units and militias made up of Shia volunteers have succeeded in driving out Islamic State militants in several areas north and east of Baghdad. But in the process, Sunni residents have been prevented from returning to their homes – in some cases because those homes have been destroyed, not by the IS forces but by the Iraqi Shia units. Sunni residents who elected to stay in their homes during the IS occupation are often being treated as traitors; the men are being jailed and families banished. Their properties are being given to Shia families.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, himself a Shiite, has spoken out against such behaviour, which smacks of ethnic cleansing. Despite the outcry, it is likely to continue as Iraqis, aided by Canada and the U.S.-led coalition, beat back IS fighters, right up to the retaking of Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. “What we are dealing with here is a real attempt at demographic change,” Sunni politician Hamed al-Mutlaq recently told the Associated Press. “It is now extremely difficult for the Sunnis to return to their homes … It is genuine fear that is stopping them.”

This situation will facilitate the Kurds’ hold on the northeast of Iraq, giving them the chance to establish a viable independent state, or a state in a federation with the south. Without a critical mass of Sunnis, central and western Iraq will fall into an expanded and powerful Shia state. And because of the Shiites’ more religious nature and also because of Iran’s influence, this Shia state is most likely to become an Islamic Republic, allied with Iran.

Not exactly the state for which Canada thought it was fighting.

Once prominent horsemen’s club is now
a temporary escape from Iraq’s loss

Residents watch a race in Baghdad’s Amiriya district. (Ahmed Saad / For The Globe and Mail)

Dhia Fakury’s breakdown came as a surprise.

A former senior government official during the years of Saddam Hussein’s rule, Mr. Fakhury spent a December afternoon escorting me around the racetrack in Ameria, an affluent suburb of Baghdad. (Iraqis love horses, and horse racing is still carrying on despite the insecurity in Iraq caused by the invasion of Islamic State jihadists.)

Mr. Fakhury has been witness to many of his country’s ups and downs. He recalls the productive days when his office in the ministry of industry controlled many of the country’s manufacturers. But as he walked me to my car, he broke down in tears. “Give us mercy,” he pleaded, wanting Canadians to hear his cry. “We’ve already lost our country. We can’t take any more.”

Until that moment I had only seen the bravado of the once-powerful Sunnis who belong to the club of horsemen. Mr. Fakhury’s tears made me realize that they are hanging on to a place in society only by a thread.

The original Baghdad Equestrian Club was created by the British in 1920 in the capital’s well-heeled central neighbourhood of Mansour. In those heady days, Mr. Fakhury’s grandfather raised famed Arabian horses and exported them to India, Egypt and Lebanon.

For 75 years, the facility, with its neatly trimmed hedges and shaded grandstand, was known as the finest track in the Middle East. But it was forced to relocate in 1995 when Saddam chose to build a large mosque on the original property. (He was struggling against international sanctions at the time and was courting support from more religious Saudis.)

The new facility in Ameria, west of Baghdad, just off the road to Abu Ghraib, is a shabby, unfinished replica, but it regularly draws several hundred race fans every Tuesday and Saturday when four races are run. The place has become a hangout for some of the senior people from Saddam’s era who were not arrested by the Americans, such as Mr. Fakhury, who spends his days training others’ horses. (Mr. Fakhury, as was the case with most senior officials who were members of Iraq’s dominant Baath Party, lost his job in 2003 when U.S. occupiers decided to purge all Baathists from the government.) Gambling is forbidden by the Koran but in this well-guarded little enclave, no one seems to object to the millions of dinars (there are more than 900 dinars to a Canadian dollar) wagered every race day.

Above the crowd, the private members’ club, once chaired by Saddam’s uncle and frequented by his sons Uday and Qusay, is a microcosm of Iraq’s declining elite. A year ago there were 89 members, Mr. Fakhury says. “Now we’re down to 15.”

Baghdad’s young adults see Iraq’s future
with mix of fear, optimism

The young adults who filed into the guesthouse of a media compound in Baghdad were all university students or recent graduates from four different institutions. Two of the women had their hair covered by hijab and wore the long Arab robe known as an abaya. All were smart, thoughtful, articulate, enthusiastic and idealistic.

They had come together to talk with The Globe and Mail about their vision of Iraq’s future. One of the students had first been asked if she was interested in participating and she put out the word on social media. She picked the other six from a large number of respondents with a view to gathering a diverse group.

Every one of them described themselves only as “Muslim,” refusing to say if they were Shia or Sunni Muslim. Three of them did say they were children of mixed Sunni-Shia parents – which they described as “the Iraqi reality” – but didn’t say which religious view prevailed, if any.

They were super-sensitive to the dangers of sectarianism, which they called “the curse” of the country. All of them wanted very much for Iraq as they know it – with its mix of Sunni, Shia, Kurds and minorities – to survive, but they sensed it might not.

“In five years’ time, there will be even more people killed,” said Chaldon, a 27-year-old urban planner “and even more crises.” (We used only first names because some were nervous about public reaction to what they might say.)

“Change in this country will not happen unless we separate state and religion,” said Dua, 25, a graduate student in chemistry and one of the two women to wear hijab.

“That won’t happen in Iraq,” said Shahrazad, 25, a civil engineer who left her long hair exposed. “Not in 10 years; not in 20 years. The opposition [to the idea] is too strong,” she said. “It’s the way people think.”

Several complained that Iran has too much influence in Iraq. “Some politicians go to Iran to get their instructions,” said Hala, 25, a graduate student in computer science. “In 2010, Allawi won the election,” Hala explained, referring to Ayad Allawi, prime minister from 2004-05, who led a mixed party of Shiites and Sunnis. “But Iran said ‘No, we want Maliki,’ ” a reference to former Shia prime minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose anti-Sunni policies contributed to a schism in the country. Mr. Maliki had been supported by a coalition of Shia parties, some of which are known to be close to Iran.

Some of the young people thought this schism could lead to a partition of the country.

“Islamic State is destroying the Sunni areas in the West, and the Shiites [under Iranian influence] will push for separation,” Chaldon said.

They all saw Kurdistan as being better than the rest of Iraq – freer, secular, with more order and peace. All have visited the Kurdish region a number of times, but they are not able to move there, though some wish they could. “Arabs are not welcome, not as permanent residents,” said Shahrazad.

Hala found a way, however. She’s engaged to a Kurd. “I couldn’t be happier,” she said, with a big smile.

Nor, a 23-year-old law student, said she was optimistic about the country’s future, though she couldn’t say why. “I believe Iraq will be better – a more civil society.”

“I’m optimistic too,” said Mohammed, 20, who came all the way from Basra in southern Iraq to participate. “We just have to improve conditions for the youth. They are the key to getting along with each other.”

Six of the seven said they would definitely still be in Iraq in 10 years’ time, working for the country they dream of. However, when they all were asked if they thought the majority of the group would still be in Iraq a decade from now, every one of them said no – they were sure that most of them would be long gone.