Iraq appears to be teetering ever closer to the verge of collapse. Forces from the semi-autonomous Kurdish region moved quickly to seize control of Kirkuk, a key city in northern Iraq. The Kurdish forces moved in as government forces retreated in the face of an advance by sunni militants. A combination of factors now appears to be pushing the country towards collapse.

ISIS now claims to be advancing towards Baghdad, the seat of the central government and Iraq’s largest and most important city. Shia leaders, including the powerful al Sadr are now looking to marshal forces to stop any potential advance. While central government forces have been fleeing in the face of the Sunni militant advances, it’s likely that the Shia dominated army will dig in once the militants reach the Shia regions.

Conflict fueled by internal divisions

The internal politics of Iraq are immensely complex, something that military war planners in the United States largely brushed off in the months leading up to the U.S. invasion. Iraq is split between a sizable Sunni minority from which Saddam Hussein hailed, a large Shia majority, and a Kurdish population that largely resides in a semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq, near Mosul.

The Shia are generally concentrated in the south, while the Sunni reside in central and north west Iraq. The Kurdish autonomous region is located in the north west region. Right now, Sunni militants under the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) are rapidly expanding their grip over Sunni dominated areas.

Iraq Kurdish Forces

While the Shia control the central government, they remain fractured into several different groups. This has prevented the majority group from forming any sort of cohesion that might allow them to actually stabilize Iraq. Instead, the country appears to be fracturing into three different zones.

The Shia majority have a firm grip over Southern Iraq, but little else. Even amongst themselves, the Shia remain divided. The Kurdish region in the north east has been moving closer and closer to full independence, while Sunni militants may soon seize complete control of central and north west Iraq.

Kurdistan is the one bastion of stability

The Kurdish region, often referred to as Kurdistan already enjoys semi autonomy and appears to be pushing towards complete independence. Just a few days ago the Kurds announced an oil deal with Turkey, cutting Baghdad out of the process, and drawing the ire of the central government. With the rest of Iraq descending into chaos, the Kurds may push for a complete break from Iraq, establishing Kurdistan as a separate nation.

Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Kurds have largely kept to themselves, fielding their own army called the Peshmerga. This army now appears to be in control of Kirkuk. Kurdish regions have been the only regions to enjoy relative stability in the aftermath of the American led invasion. With tens of thousands of refugees streaming into the region, however, it’s possible that some ISIS militants will be able to enter the country and cause disruptions.

Will Iraq be the next Syria?

Given how quickly the situation is spiraling out of control, it appears that Iraq, outside of Kurdistan, may soon find itself facing a complete collapse. With the Shia divided and the Sunni disenfranchised, the central government is too weak to control the country. ISIS has made it clear that they plan to establish a conservative Sunni state in the central and north east parts of Iraq, as well as in Syria. Right now, it appears they may have the power to do just that.

The United States, meanwhile, seems to be at a loss and has been taken off guard by the surprise attack. Apparent, the government in Baghdad is reaching out to the U.S. for air support, though for now it appears that the U.S. is unwilling to provide such a direct intervention. Still, the war weary United States will likely provide only limited support. Further, given the Iraqi government’s inability to control the country, many will likely view it as a lost cause.