May 09, 2006

Don't Purposefully Partition Iraq

I'm still more with Anthony Cordesman than Gelb/Biden/Galbraith on this issue. He's got a succinct piece in today's NYT. Key quotes:

The first problem is that Iraq does not have a neat set of ethnic dividing lines. There has never been a meaningful census of Iraq showing exactly how its Arab Sunnis, Arab Shiites, Kurds and other factions are divided or where they live. The two elections held since the toppling of Saddam Hussein have made it clear, however, that Iraq's cities and 18 governorates all have significant minorities.

Thus any effort to divide the country along sectarian and ethnic lines would require widespread "relocations." This would probably be violent and impoverish those forced to move, leave a legacy of fear and hatred, and further delay Iraq's political and economic recovery.

Moreover, Iraq is heavily urbanized, with nearly 40 percent of the population in the multiethnic greater Baghdad and Mosul areas. We have seen in Northern Ireland and the Balkans how difficult it is to split cities, and with Iraq's centralized and failing services and impoverished economy, violence and economics cannot be separated. Deciding where Kirkuk, a key oil city, belonged would pit the Kurds against all the rest of Iraq's factions. Basra, the nation's port, is already under the sway of Shiite Islamist militias and could lose all of its secular character if the nation divided. In addition, the nation could not be partitioned without dividing the army, the security forces and the police. The regular military is largely Shiite with a significant number of Kurds. The Ministry of Interior forces are largely Shiite, and the police are hopelessly mixed with militias and local security forces that split according to local tribal, sectarian and ethnic ties. Dividing the country essentially means dividing the army and security forces and strengthening the militias — all of which would lead to more violence.

And of course, there is no way to divide Iraqi that will not set off fights over control of oil. More than 90 percent of Iraq's government revenues come from oil exports. The Sunni Arab west has no developed oil fields and thus would have no oil revenues. The Kurds want the northern oil fields, but have no legitimate claim to them and no real way to export the oil they produce (their neighbors Iran, Syria and Turkey have restive Kurdish populations of their own and thus no interest in helping Iraq's Kurds achieve self-sustaining freedom). Control of Basra would also be an issue, with various Shiite groups looking to separate and take control of the oil in the south.

Dividing Iraq would also harm regional stability and the war on terrorists. Sunni Islamist extremist groups with ties to Al Qaeda already dominate the Sunni insurgents, and division would only increase their hold over average Iraqis. And with Iraqi Sunnis cut out of oil money, Arab Sunni states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia would be forced to support them, if only to avoid having the Islamist extremists take over this part of Iraq.

Iran, of course, would compete for the Iraqi Shiites. The Kurds have no friends: Turkey, Iran and Syria would seek to destabilize the north and exploit the divisions between the two main Kurdish political unions. In the end, these divisions could spill over into the rest of the Middle East and the Arab world, creating a risk of local conflicts and the kind of religious tension that feeds Islamist extremism.

Washington has made serious mistakes in Iraq, and they may lead to civil war. Dividing Iraq, however, is virtually certain to make things worse.

Regular readers know the specter of population transfers, and what to do about places like Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk, have always made me extremely skeptical about the 'loose confederation' idea. Cordesman is right that our efforts to build a unified, multi-ethnic army would likely come to naught as well, were the Gelb/Biden plan adopted. Of course, one can argue that preserving a unitary state is just shy of impossible, and that partitioning Iraq is more in tune with reality. I guess I'm just not there yet.

Posted by Gregory at May 9, 2006 12:16 PM | TrackBack (0)
Comments

How would we go about partitioning iraq? I mean, in detail.

Ever since the "handover" when Bremer gave iraq to Allawi, we've been saying that iraq lhas a sovereign government. Are we going to decide that the sovereign iraqi government has no say in where it's borders are? In a legal sense partition is no longer our decision to make.

Of course we could be indian-givers. We could take the country back and partition it and set up three new governments. Nobody's going to tell us we can't do that. We're the 800 pound gorilla in iraq, we can sit anywhere we want to. If we say there's no iraqi government then there's no iraqi government.

But if we felt some need to explain it to anybody, what would we say?

Posted by: J Thomas at May 9, 2006 02:40 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Oh. yeah. This idea is just moronic.

Posted by: Chris at May 9, 2006 09:03 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I don't understand why people think that partition is some sort of magic solution. Look what it did in the case of India and Pakistan: five million slaughtered, 50 years of hostility with four wars and a nuclear arms race, and an on-going separatist insurgency in Kashmir. Partition can work in some cases, like Checkoslovokia, where there is some real agreement, but such cases are rare.

Actually, I think the one thing that gives some hope for Iraq is that the parties know they have no alternative but to develop some sort of shared government. They know that they can't break up, and they also know that no party has the strength to dominate the other two, and so they have to figure out some way to get along. If it weren't for that fact, the situation would have blown to pieces a long time ago.

Posted by: Les Brunswick at May 10, 2006 12:54 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

"Of course we could be indian-givers. We could take the country back and partition it and set up three new governments. Nobody's going to tell us we can't do that. We're the 800 pound gorilla in iraq, we can sit anywhere we want to. If we say there's no iraqi government then there's no iraqi government.

But if we felt some need to explain it to anybody, what would we say?"
Posted by: J Thomas at May 9, 2006 02:40 PM | Permalink to this comment

We'd be the 800 pound gorrilla fighting several tons of guerrillas, so to speak. At that point everybody would be attacking us.

Posted by: Barry at May 10, 2006 01:29 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Barry, you are correct.

Posted by: David All at May 10, 2006 04:28 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

are biden et al really calling for partition? IIUC they still envision a soveriegn Iraqi state with control over the army. and some redistribution of oil revenue. It would be very heavy autonomy. Not that different, and possibly better for the Sunnis, than whats in the current "draft" Constitution. Depending on how its implemented.

IIUC the centralizing approach now advocates creating two autonomous regions, not three. Kurdistan, and Rest of Iraq, sharing a weak central govt - but ROI govt would be strong and centralized. This would solve problems of Basra, Baghdad, Hilla, etc but NOT Kirkuk or even Mosul.

Posted by: liberalhawk at May 12, 2006 06:38 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.


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