Partitioning Iraq

Would dividing the country decrease ethnic infighting or lead to more fighting and inflame the Middle East?

Published October 30, 2006 12:00PM (EST)

The possibility that ethnic rivalries may break Iraq into three pieces has emerged as an election issue in U.S. politics. Last week, Bush administration spokesman Tony Snow branded any plan for partition a "nonstarter." Other politicians, however, are not so sure. Both Republicans and Democrats have endorsed a loose Iraqi federation of three equal parts, and some are even campaigning on the idea. Democratic Senate candidate Harold Ford of Tennessee and Democratic House candidate Ted Ankrum of Texas are among those who have touted versions of partition on the stump. What are the pros and cons here, and what explains George Bushs die-hard opposition?

The most determined opponents of the creation of regional confederacies in Iraq are Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The Turks fear that if there is an independent Kurdistan in Iraq's north, it will become a magnet for Turkey's own substantial and fractious minority of Kurds. Saudi Arabia, which adheres to the ultra-strict Wahhabi Sunni school of Islam, has poor relations with Shiite Iran, and traditionally had severe tensions even with its own Shiites, who form perhaps 10 percent of the Saudi population. It objects to a Shiite super-province right next door in Iraq's south.

It is likely in order not to ruffle Turkish and Saudi feathers that the Bush administration so firmly opposes all partition plans. Turkey, a NATO ally of Washington, has been even more vocal and critical than Saudi Arabia about the Iraq imbroglio. But Bush and Cheney are especially attentive to Saudi concerns. Like Riyadh, they would view an autonomous Shiite super-province, which could easily fall under the gravitational pull of Iran, as highly undesirable.

Within Congress, however, the temptation to indulge Iraq's warring factions in their desire to divide the country has grown. The most prominent proponent of carving Iraq into three major ethnically based provinces, with regions for the Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Shiites under a weak federal umbrella, is Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware. The idea has now been adopted by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. She told the Texas press last week, "Yes, it would be hard to do, but it would be worth trying ... People say, 'Well, that would balkanize the country.' Well, things are pretty stable in the Balkans right now. It's looking better than Iraq."

The senators believe that as the conflict in Iraq continues and sectarian violence mounts, trying to make Iraqs battling ethnic groups cooperate with one another in multiethnic provinces has begun to look like a mistake. But surely it is the souring of the U.S. electorate on the war and the need of election campaigns to sketch out distinctive positions and realistic solutions to the crisis that in some part impels U.S. politicians to turn to this desperate expedient.

Within Iraq, Biden and Hutchison are echoed by the Kurds and by Shiite cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). In a public sermon on Tuesday, al-Hakim, the head of the largest bloc in Parliament, advocated a Shiite provincial confederacy in the south that would unite eight or nine largely Shiite provinces into a federal region. He said that such loose federalism "does not spell partition." Addressing his followers at a mosque in Baghdad on the Eid al-Fitr, the celebration of the breaking of the Ramadan fast, al-Hakim said, "everyone should be reassured that we are supporters of the unity of Iraq and will stand against any plan for partition."

Al-Hakim went on, however, to condemn a strong central government as inherently tyrannical. He also pointed to history as support for his plan. He said that under the Ottoman Empire, Iraq had consisted of three big provinces, Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. What he did not say was that what is now Iraq was not a nation-state then but part of a large empire, and that even the Ottomans ruled Mosul and Basra through Baghdad. The three were not equal as provinces.

Al-Hakims scheme for a southern Iraqi super-province, which some have called "Sumer," after the ancient civilization of southern Iraq, is vehemently opposed by the Sunni Arab minority, the recruitment pool for the former ruling elite. Sunni Arabs lack much in the way of petroleum or gas in the areas where they predominate, and they fear that the Shiites will monopolize the vast Rumaylah oil field and other fields yet to be discovered if they have their own semiautonomous region.

The young nationalist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr also rejects this plan in favor of a relatively strong central government. The wily al-Hakim, however, outmaneuvered both al-Sadr and the Sunnis in early October and rammed through Parliament a law authorizing the formation of the southern regional government. He scraped together a coalition of members of his own party, weaker factions of other Shiite parties, independents and Kurds to gain a bare majority of 140 out of 275 votes.

The Kurds supported al-Hakim, presumably because the creation of a Shiite regional government modeled on their Kurdistan (which groups Irbil, Dohuk and Sulaymaniyah) helps legitimate the idea of regional confederacies and protects Kurdish gains in greater self-determination. The Kurds have been a prime mover in Iraqs march toward decentralization, and they probably would not mind much if the Sunnis and the Shiites did establish their own regions.

The biggest foreign backer of al-Hakims scheme, meanwhile, is the Iranian regime. A southern Shiite "Sumer" region with partial or complete autonomy would inevitably, Iranian leaders believe, fall into the orbit of Shiite Iran. And that prospect is particularly alarming to the Saudis and the United States.

Last year, the New York Times quoted Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, saying that "the main worry of all the neighbors" was that the potential disintegration of Iraq into Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish states would "bring other countries in the region into the conflict." In particular, he worries about Iran. He told the Council on Foreign Relations last fall, "We fought a war together to keep Iran out of Iraq after Iraq was driven out of Kuwait. Now we are handing the whole country over to Iran without reason." He was referring to the domination of Parliament and 11 of the countrys provinces by Shiite fundamentalist parties, especially the Iran-backed SCIRI.

Last week, with the possibility of partition becoming more likely, the Saudis attempted for the first time to intervene in the Iraq crisis in a major way. They hosted a conference in Mecca of Sunni and Shiite clergymen from Iraq. In a historic achievement, the Saudis persuaded their guests to issue a joint fatwa, or religious legal ruling, that it is impermissible for a Muslim to shed the blood of another Muslim. They declared that the difference between Shiites and Sunnis was merely a matter of personal opinion and did not rise to the level of a dispute about first principles.

The Saudis hoped that, through this conference, they could begin a process whereby Sunni and Shiite reprisal killings in Iraq could be halted. The tit-for-tat sectarian violence is the main reason many Iraqis have begun taking the idea of partition seriously.

But aside from the selfish interests of all the political actors inside and outside Iraq, as a practical policy, partitioning Iraq is too risky. It would probably not reduce ethnic infighting. It might produce more. The mini-states that emerge from a partition will have plenty of reason to fight wars with one another, as India did with Pakistan in the 1940s and has done virtually ever since. Worse, it is likely that if the Sunni Arab mini-state commits an atrocity against the Shiites, it might well bring in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. They in turn would be targeted by Saudi and Jordanian jihadi volunteers.

A break-up of Iraq might not stop at Iraqs borders. The Sunni Arabs could be picked up by Syria, thus greatly increasing Syrias fighting power. Or they could become a revolutionary force in Jordan. A wholesale renegotiation of national borders may ensue, according to some thinkers. Such profound changes in such a volatile part of the world cannot be depended on to occur without bloodshed. The region is already racked by the Arab-Israeli conflict and the struggle between secular and religious politics.

If Iraq does sink into long-term instability, it will not hold the world harmless. With two-thirds of the globes proven petroleum reserves and 45 percent of its natural gas, the Persian Gulf hinterland of Iraq is key to the well-being of an industrialized or industrializing world. Long-term political instability in this region could drive petroleum prices so high as to endanger the world economy.

Ironically, those who plotted the Iraq war as a guarantee that the new century would also be an American one may well have put U.S. energy security in such question, and so weakened the dollar, as to raise the question of whether U.S. power has been dealt a permanent setback. Americans should pray that Iraqis heed the fatwa issued in Saudi Arabia late last week, forbidding inter-Muslim bloodshed.

By Juan Cole

Juan Cole is collegiate professor of history at the University of Michigan. He runs a news and commentary webzine on U.S. foreign policy and progressive politics, Informed Comment. His new book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires (Nation Books), has just been published.


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Iran Iraq Middle East