SULAYMANIYAH, IRAQ — Ari Kamil sits quietly inside his cluttered, third-floor workshop, focused like a mad scientist on the various hobby plane parts and scattered engine bits that surround him.
"This place was full of things," Kamil, 29, says, motioning to the electrical eccentricities engulfing him. "But I gradually burnt and disposed of a big part of them because I decided to leave here."
Kamil, who chain chain smokes cigarettes and whose mop of wavy black hair makes him look like a Kurdish Fabio, isn't one to use metaphors. In a field about three miles away lays the charred wreckage of his life's work: a private plane that he had built from materials obtained throughout the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq. He set the aircraft ablaze, an act meant to display his disillusionment with the government. "I burnt my plane because I wanted to convey my message to the world," he says.
The message behind the pronouncement—one which only served to dismantle Kamil's dreams and failed to illicit the attention of the government—is one of deep frustration with a government that he believes has stifled his creative ambitions because of bureaucratic hurdles he was unable to overcome. And despite national elections on May 12th, which left American officials uncertain of their role in the country's future, the nation remains twice divided as political blowback from a failed referendum in September continues to ripple throughout the country.
On a Wednesday in October, the only flights out of Northern Iraq, a semi-autonomous region often referred to as Kurdistan, were filling up fast. More than 145 international media organizations had arrived ahead of an independence referendum, during which the Kurdistan regional government held a vote on whether or not to secede from the central government in Baghdad. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi warned against holding the vote, fearing a split would divide an already sectarian country. In its aftermath, Abadi terminated all international flights to the region, which remained suspended. Foreign nationals and expats scrambled for flights.
But at that time Kamil was not trying to leave the country. He was attempting to import products for a plane that was near completion, his largest project yet: a two-seater, single-prop plane. But tensions with local and national governments prevented him from flying, he tells me.
The fallout from the referendum left Baghdad to reclaim disputed territories, or regions gained by Kurdish forces in their fight to expel the Islamic State from some of the country's largest cities. One of those disputed cities was Kirkuk, an oil boomtown, and its suburb of Tuz Khurmatu, where Kamil is from.
Before we part, Kamil says something that seems to encapsulate the internal struggles facing Iraq in the years to come.
"I am a man who hasn't found himself yet," he says.
The recent election saw the central government in Baghdad quash a Kurdish secession movement in the north. Likewise, the parliament is deeply divided among Sunni and Shi'ite. Many here describe to me a political holding pattern that seems unlikely to break.
Iraqis voted in lower numbers this past election than in the war-torn years of past. Fewer than 45 percent of eligible voters turned out to cast their votes for candidates in the 329-seat parliament. That's less than any turnout since the 2003 United States-led invasion.
Tired of pie-in-the-sky candidates who offer splashy, unrealistic promises, many citizens have lost faith in the electoral process.
"Everyone is Ali Baba," says Dani, 28, a jeweler in the city of Erbil, in northern Iraq, referring to the thieving folklore character from One Thousand and One Nights. "They promise too much."
Western observers noted that a leeriness born of years of political ineptitude and infighting birthed the rise of the Islamic State, which occupied Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, for more than two years. And while the country is experiencing its lowest levels of violence since 2003, seven people were still killed in attacks by the terrorist group on the day of voting. The current fatigue empowered ISIS. The question is, could it again empower the rise of a new regional disruptor?
The implications on U.S. foreign policy largely depended on the next government's prime minister and the parliamentary make-up. This year's elections were meant to be pivotal, and when Moktada al-Sadr, a militia leader whose teams were attributed to many atrocities against civilians during the invasion, was voted to form the next government, it seemed the state had not advanced as many hoped it would.
Many journalists and analysts felt that neither the U.S. nor Iran had won an outright victory in the May elections. "The Victory of Mr. Sadr's political coalition could complicate the American strategy in Iraq," the New York Times wrote; "In an election that outside observers saw as a test of Iran's influence against that of the U.S., Mr. Sadr doesn't fall neatly into either camp, running against both Iranian and American influence in Iraq," the Wall Street Journal reported.
The Obama and Trump administrations have both given much in the way of logistical, financial, and armament support to Iraqi troops in their fight against ISIS. The future of American troops in Iraq, whether they will receive similar support as in the past, now hangs in the balance, a problem for officials who deem boots on the ground an indefatigable front against the war on terror.
But such analysis negates the bet made by the U.S. in northern Iraq, where it purportedly plans to build its most expensive embassy in the world, in the Kurdish capital of Erbil. It's a move that is sure to anger Baghdad, while bolstering U.S. clout in the north. The Kurdistan regional government, which oversees a semi-autonomous region to the north of Kirkuk, and the central government in Baghdad have clashed for years. But recent developments, such as the embassy, point to a more subtle direction for American officials: their continued bet on the Kurds (which comes much to the chagrin of Baghdad and neighboring Iran), whose fighting forces were touted for their expulsion of ISIS fighters in areas that were left abandoned by federal Iraqi forces.
Tensions between the Kurdish and Iraqi governments came to a head late last year. And while some might worry that American troops won't be welcome in Iraq, they will certainly have a home in the North. It was a signal of what may be to come for the future of Iraq—further dissonance between the two disaffected regions.
"The longer the issue of the disputed territories goes unsolved, the more likely we'll see violence," says Jacob Eriksson, a lecturer on post-war recovery at York University. "There is an urgent need to find a political solution."
An article within the Iraqi constitution calls for the normalization of those areas. A referendum would be held to decide whether those cities or regions wished to align with Iraq or the Kurdistan region.
Lands of Metamorphosis is a month-long column chronicling the social, cultural, and political paroxysms of the Middle East today.