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The Case For Dividing Iraq

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Iraq is broken.

Iraq’s national-unity government is not united and does not govern. Iraqi security forces, the centerpiece of the U.S.’s efforts for stability, are ineffective or, even worse, combatants in the country’s escalating civil war. President George W. Bush says the U.S.’s goal is a unified and democratic Iraq, but we have no way to get there. As Americans search for answers, there is one obvious alternative: split Iraq into separate Kurdish, Sunni and Shi’ite states.

The case for the partition of Iraq is straightforward: It has already happened. The Kurds, a non-Arab people who live in the country’s north, enjoy the independence they long dreamed about. The Iraqi flag does not fly in Kurdistan, which has a democratically elected government and its own army. In southern Iraq, Shi’ite religious parties have carved out theocratic fiefdoms, using militias that now number in the tens of thousands to enforce an Iranian-style Islamic rule. To the west, Iraq’s Sunni provinces have become chaotic no-go zones, with Islamic insurgents controlling Anbar province while Baathists and Islamic radicals operate barely below the surface in Salahaddin and Nineveh. And Baghdad, the heart of Iraq, is now partitioned between the Shi’ite east and the Sunni west. The Mahdi Army, the most radical of the Shi’ite militias, controls almost all the Shi’ite neighborhoods, and al-Qaeda has a large role in Sunni areas. Once a melting pot, Baghdad has become the front line of Iraq’s Sunni-Shi’ite war, which is claiming at least 100 lives every day.

Most Iraqis do not want civil war. But they have rejected the idea of a unified Iraq. In the December 2005 national elections, Shi’ites voted overwhelmingly for Shi’ite religious parties, Sunni Arabs for Sunni religious or nationalist parties, and the Kurds for Kurdish nationalist parties. Fewer than 10% of Iraq’s Arabs crossed sectarian lines. The Kurds voted 98.7% for independence in a nonbinding referendum.

Iraq’s new constitution, approved by 80% of Iraq’s voters, is a road map to partition. The constitution allows Iraq’s three main groups to establish powerful regions, each with its own government, substantial control over the oil resources in its territory and even its own regional army. Regional law supersedes federal law on almost all matters. The central government is so powerless that, under the constitution, it cannot even impose a tax.

American leaders seem to be in denial about these facts. President Bush continually asserts that the Iraqi people have voted for unity, while Condoleezza Rice once told me how impressed she was by the commitment of the Iraqi Kurds to building a new Iraq. James A. Baker III, co-chairman of a congressionally mandated commission tasked with formulating new policy options, has ruled out the idea of dividing Iraq. The most prominent American politician to endorse anything resembling partition is Senator Joseph Biden, who, along with former Council on Foreign Relations president Leslie Gelb, proposes dividing Iraq into three regions while maintaining a “central government in charge of common interests.”

U.S. officials are now asking that Iraqis agree to a program of national reconciliation, changes in the constitution to protect Sunni interests, and an oil law that would share revenues equitably. It’s instructive that this initiative aimed at unifying Iraq comes from Americans and not the country’s elected leaders. A U.S. effort to put Iraq back together would involve endless micromanagement of Iraqi affairs and an open-ended presence of large numbers of U.S. troops. Breaking up Iraq, on the other hand, could provide an exit strategy for U.S. troops, mitigate the worst effects of civil war and give all Iraqis a greater stake in shaping their future. Few Americans imagined that 3 1/2 years after “liberating” Iraq, the U.S. would be presiding over the country’s demise. But in a war in which there have never been good options, partition is the best we have left.

Iraq has never been a voluntary union of its peoples. Winston Churchill, as Britain’s Colonial Secretary, created Iraq from the wreckage of the Ottoman Empire in 1921, installing a Sunni Arab King to rule over the Shi’ite majority and a rebellious Kurdish minority. Churchill later described Iraq’s forced unity as one of his biggest mistakes. In 2003 the U.S. not only unseated the last and most brutal of Iraq’s tyrants but also destroyed the institutions–notably the army and the Baath Party–that held Iraq together. The sectarian slaughter that followed the Feb. 22 bombing of the Shi’ite Golden Mosque in Samarra accelerated Iraq’s disintegration.

Nonetheless, the U.S. continues to cling to the illusion of Iraqi unity. President Bush’s hopes for success in Iraq depend on two pillars: Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s national-unity government and the establishment of security forces that are trusted and respected by all Iraqis. But both are shams. Al-Maliki leads a religious Shi’ite coalition that includes parties that operate the death squads that kill scores of Sunnis each day. While he says illegal militias should be disbanded, he has vigorously resisted every U.S. operation against them. The Sunnis in Iraq’s government are, if anything, even more extreme. Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, the Speaker of the Council of Representatives and Iraq’s highest-ranking Sunni, has been closely associated with Ansar al-Islam, an al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group that has targeted Shi’ites and secular Iraqis. He has blamed Iraq’s problems on the Jews and has said statues should be erected to those who kill American troops. President Bush has lavishly praised both al-Mashhadani and al-Maliki, but flattery has not produced statesmanship. The real problem is that they reflect the views of their respective communities, which voted overwhelmingly for them.

Meanwhile, U.S. officials speak of Iraq’s army and police as if they were neutral guarantors of public safety. Iraqis see them for what they are: Shi’ites or Sunnis who are active combatants in Iraq’s civil war. Shi’ite police units have kidnapped, tortured and executed thousands of Sunnis since the Samarra bombing. Sunni policemen are often insurgents or sympathizers. The army, while marginally better than the police, is divided along sectarian lines and is largely ineffective. Whole battalions do not show up for combat duties they don’t like. It is not possible to build a national army or police force when there is no nation to begin with.

So what can be done? The most realistic option is for the U.S. to abandon the idea of creating a new, united Iraq and instead allow the country to break apart, enabling each of the country’s three groups to choose its own government and provide for its own security. It is possible that Sunni and Shi’ite regions would remain together in a loose confederation, but Kurdistan’s full independence is almost certainly a matter of time.

Partition is an Iraqi solution. The U.S. could help make it go more smoothly, but it mostly needs to get out of the way. The Kurds already have their region. Last month Iraq’s parliament approved a law to allow the Shi’ites to merge Iraq’s nine southern provinces into a single state. The one group that resists dividing Iraq is the Sunnis, some out of nostalgia for the days when they ran the country and others because they reject all that has happened since Saddam’s overthrow. But with the Kurds and Shi’ites having their regions, partition becomes an accomplished fact. It is hard to see any alternative for the Sunnis except to do the same.

In fact, the Sunnis may have the most to gain from partition. The Sunni insurgency feeds on popular hostility not just to the Americans but to a Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi government. Most Sunnis don’t support al-Qaeda and its imitators, but they often prefer them to Iraqi security forces, which are seen as complicit in the killings of Sunnis. If the Sunnis were to establish their own region, they could have an army and provide for their own security. Since Iraq’s known oil fields are in the Shi’ite south and the Kurdish north, the Sunnis do have reason to fear being stuck in the middle with no resources of their own. So, for partition to work, the Kurds and Shi’ites would have to guarantee the Sunnis a proportionate share of Iraq’s oil revenues for a period of time, as they have already agreed to do. Over the long term, exploration for oil in the largely unexplored Sunni areas provides the region its best prospect for revenues.

We should have no illusions: partitioning Iraq would not be easy. Some groups would resist bloodily. But the adverse consequences of partition have already occurred. There’s no reason to believe that formalizing Iraq’s breakup would make anything worse–in fact, it might even help contain the violence. It’s useful to outline the three main arguments raised against partition and explain why none are as convincing as their proponents portray them to be:

The sectarian bloodbath will get worse. Iraq’s Sunni-Shi’ite civil war has already claimed tens of thousands of lives and forced Sunnis and Shi’ites to abandon coexistence. This is tragic and certainly not what most Iraqi Shi’ites or Sunnis want. But once under way, civil wars tend to empower the most extreme elements. Civil wars do not end because the parties get tired of fighting. Rather, they end because of outside intervention or, more often, because one side wins. Partition will not stop the sectarian cleansing in mixed areas, but by giving Shi’ites and Sunnis their own regions, it can avoid an outcome in which Iraq’s more numerous Shi’ites completely crush the Sunnis.

Iran will dominate the Shi’ite south. Iran’s Iraqi allies already dominate Shi’ite southern Iraq. If the U.S. were serious about countering Iran’s influence, U.S. troops would have to forcefully disarm the Shi’ite militias and dismantle the southern theocracies. But this would mean taking on a whole new enemy in Iraq and also require committing more troops. The Bush Administration has no intention of doing either. Right now, Iran’s allies control both the central government in Baghdad and the south. Partition would limit Iran’s influence to the southern half of Iraq.

A divided Iraq will be destabilizing to Iraq’s neighbors. Iraq’s Sunni Arab neighbors all fear the destabilizing consequences of partition. But they fear an Iran-dominated Iraq even more. Turkey, Iraq’s other powerful neighbor, has a population that includes at least 14 million Turkish Kurds. The Turkish nightmare has been the emergence of an independent Kurdistan in Iraq. But now that it is actually happening, Turkey has responded pragmatically: it is by far the largest source of investment in Iraqi Kurdistan and has cultivated close relations with its leaders. As Turkey’s more sophisticated strategic thinkers understand, Turkey and an independent Kurdistan have a lot in common. Both are secular, pro-Western, democratic and non-Arab. Not only will Kurdistan depend on Turkey economically, but it can serve as a useful buffer to an Iran-dominated Islamic Iraq.

For many Americans, the biggest appeal of partition is that it makes possible a relatively rapid U.S. exit from much of Iraq. If U.S. goals no longer include preserving national unity or establishing Western-style democracy, there is no need for U.S. troops in the Shi’ite south or Baghdad. We would leave behind a civil war and an Iran-dominated south, but that outcome would be no different if we were to stay with the current force levels and mission. One overriding interest in Iraq, however, is still achievable: that Iraq’s Sunni areas not become a base from which al-Qaeda and its allies might attack the West. With the security that comes from having their own region, the Sunnis might deal more effectively with the terrorist threat, since continuing violence would prevent economic progress in the Sunni areas. While local leaders are now unwilling to fight the most radical elements of the insurgency when the beneficiary is Iraq’s Shi’ites, they may be more willing to do so when it benefits them.

The U.S. will still need an insurance policy against the threat of al-Qaeda in western Iraq. This could be accomplished by deploying a small force to Kurdistan, from which the U.S. could readily move back into the adjacent Sunni areas if necessary to disrupt al-Qaeda operations. This force would discharge a moral debt to the Kurds who fought on our side and could help consolidate democracy in the one part of Iraq that turned out as we hoped.

American administrations are instinctively committed to existing lines on the map. But not all breakups are a disaster. Although President Bush’s father tried to hold the Soviet Union together, few mourned its ultimate demise. Trying to put back together Iraq, a state that has brought nonstop misery to most of its people for its entire 80-year history and is not desired by a substantial part of its citizens, will only bring about more pain and blood for Americans and Iraqis. If the country’s people are to be saved, the only choice is to end Iraq.

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