Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Iraq: It’s time to start thinking about how we can mitigate the consequences of the unavoidable breakup

The failure of politics to resolve the internal conflicts in Iraq has allowed the country to fly off in three different directions dominated by Shia, Sunni and Kurd populations. In fact, that very failure is in part or wholly due to the internal splits in a country that did not exist before 1920. (Iraq is a creation of the British who, along with the French, carved up the Ottoman Empire following WWI.)

American policy out of Washington and American military might on the ground focus on denial of the polarization of ethnic and religious politics as well as the ethnic relocation (i.e., cleansing) that has been going on making the country far less integrated than it was just a few years ago.

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Senate voted 75-23 in favor of a resolution sponsored by Senators Joe Biden (D-Maryland) and Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) acknowledging the reality of these divisions and putting the Senate on record as favoring work towards a loose regional federation. Supporters went out of their way to make clear they were not talking about partition in large part because partition is almost always an acknowledgement of failure. However, the reality on the ground is not necessarily presenting the parties with good choices. Whether it is called loose federation or partition, a strict division of power is preferable to the bloodshed and instability an expanded civil war would bring in trying to hold an already weak central government in power. In fact, Iraq’s constitution already provides the seeds for the country’s devolution.

Former ambassador Peter Galbraith in today’s New York Times has these thoughts:
The Kurdish-dominated provinces in the north are recognized in the Constitution as an existing federal region, while other parts of Iraq can also opt to form their own regions. Iraq’s regions are allowed their own Parliament and president, and may establish their own army. (Kurdistan’s army, the peshmerga, is nearly as large as the national army and far more capable.) While the central government has exclusive control over the national army and foreign affairs, regional law is superior to national law on almost everything else. The central government cannot even impose a tax.

Iraq’s minimalist Constitution is a reflection of a country without a common identity. The Shiites believe their majority entitles them to rule, and a vast majority of them support religious parties that would define Iraq as a Shiite state. Iraq’s Sunni Arabs cannot accept their country being defined by a rival branch of Islam and ruled by parties they see as aligned with Iran. And the Kurdish vision of Iraq is of a country that does not include them.

The absence of a shared identity is a main reason the Bush administration has failed to construct workable national institutions in Iraq. American training can make Iraq’s Shiite-dominated security forces more effective, but it cannot make them into neutral guarantors of safety that the Sunnis can trust. The Kurds ban the national army and police from their territory.

In a reflection of Iraq’s deep divisions, the country’s Shiite prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and the main Sunni parties denounced the Senate vote as a plot to partition Iraq, while Kurdish leaders, along with a leading Shiite party, embraced the resolution precisely because they hope it will lead to the partition.

Senator Biden, probably the best-informed member of Congress on Iraq, insists that loose federalism, not partition, is his goal. He makes an analogy to Bosnia, where the 1995 Dayton agreement has kept that country together by devolving most functions to ethnically defined entities. He has a point: Iraq’s Kurdish leaders are willing to remain part of Iraq for the time being because Kurdistan already has all attributes of a state except international recognition.

But over the long term, the former Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union are better analogies to Iraq than Bosnia. Democracy destroyed those states because, as in Iraq, there was never a shared national identity, and a substantial part of the population did not want to be part of the country.

So we should stop arguing over whether we want “partition” or “federalism” and start thinking about how we can mitigate the consequences of Iraq’s unavoidable breakup. Referendums will need to be held, as required by Iraq’s Constitution, to determine the final borders of the three regions. There has to be a deal on sharing oil money that satisfies Shiites and Kurds but also guarantees the Sunnis a revenue stream, at least until the untapped oil resources of Sunni areas are developed. And of course a formula must be found to share or divide Baghdad.

Those who still favor a centralized state like to insist that partition would further destabilize the country. But current events suggest otherwise. Iraq’s most stable and democratic region is Kurdistan. In Sunni-dominated Anbar Province, the Americans abandoned a military strategy that entailed working with the Shiite-dominated Iraqi Army and instead moved to set up a Sunni militia. The result has been gains against Al Qaeda and a substantial improvement in local security.

Let’s face it: partition is a better outcome than a Sunni-Shiite civil war. There is, in any event, little alternative to partition. Iraq cannot be reconstructed as a unitary state, and the sooner we face up to this reality, the better.

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