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Issue Date:  November 2, 2007

A dangerous division

The Senate's partition plan for Iraq will make a tragic situation worse


-- AFP Photo/Roslan Rahman

U.S. soldiers walk in front of a map of Iraq hung on a museum wall in the ancient city of Babylon, south of Baghdad, in June 2004.

On Sept. 26, the U.S. Senate voted 75-23 in support of a resolution that calls for a “federal” solution to the internal conflicts in Iraq, a vote that has been widely interpreted as a call for the de facto partition of the country. Though the resolution is non-binding, it has caused great controversy among Iraqis and others concerned with peace and security in the region.

The Iraqi constitution already gives inhabitants of the existing 18 provinces the right to demand a referendum on the establishment of a federal region provided they can gather the support of one-tenth of the electorate or one-third of the governorate council members in each province within the boundaries of the projected federal entity. But the congressional resolution calls on the initiative to come from “Iraq’s major factions,” identified as Iraq’s three “main ethno-sectarian groups.” Whereas most Iraqis who support a federal system advocate a bottom-up process based on geography, the Senate plan constitutes a top-down solution from the outside based on ethnicity and religion.

Iraq’s dominant political parties blasted the resolution as “a threat to Iraq sovereignty and unity ... based on an incorrect reading and unrealistic estimations of the history, present and future of Iraq.” In a statement signed by the leading Shiite, Sunni and secular blocs in the Iraqi parliament, these elected political leaders argued, “It represents a dangerous precedent to establishing the nature of the relationship between Iraq and the U.S.A. and shows the Congress as if it were planning for a long-term occupation by their country’s troops.”

U.S. forces have constructed walls and other barriers to separate Sunnis from Shiites in formerly mixed neighborhoods of Baghdad, leading many observers to note that the Bush administration has effectively accepted ethnic cleansing in Iraq as part of a broader strategy of Balkanizing this former bastion of secular Arab nationalism. As many as 50,000 Iraqis are being forced from their homes in that city every month.

A more formal partition of Iraq, as advocated in the Senate resolution, however, would make an already tragic situation even worse.

-- Getty Images/AFP/Ali Yussef

Iraqi hospital workers inspect the bodies of civilians killed by unknown gunmen in the restive city of Baquba in November 2006.

Given the mosaic of ethnicities and sects in Iraq with various groupings having mixed together within both urban and rural settings for many generations, the establishment of such ethnic or sectarian mini-states would almost certainly result in even higher levels of forced population transfers, ethnic cleansing and other human suffering. Given the mixing of these populations in Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk and scores of other cities -- including widespread intermarriage -- the potential exists for the most violent breakup of a country since the partition of India 60 years ago.

The Senate plan does not address the fate of other ethnic and religious groups that do not fit into the three major ethno-religious groups such as Assyrian Christians, Arab Christians, Turkmen, Yazidis and others. These groups have already suffered disproportionately as a result of the violence and chaos stemming from the U.S. conquest of Iraq in 2003 and their fate under the rule of sectarian-defined regimes would likely be far worse than under a secular government.

Iraqi Kurds, with their distinct language and culture, have a more legitimate claim for self-rule than do the Shiite Arabs and Sunni Arabs, and they already experience significant autonomy. Calls to formally divide up Iraq and recognize Kurdish separatism could encourage Kurdish separatists in Turkey and other countries, provoking a major international conflict.

A clerical-led Shiite state in the south of Iraq would not only lead to greater Iranian power and influence in the region but could inspire radical Shiite movements elsewhere in the Gulf, including the emirate of Bahrain, where a pro-Western Sunni monarchy rules over a restive Shiite majority.

This Senate push for dividing up the country ignores the fact that perhaps the most significant divisions in Iraq today are not between Shiites and Sunnis, but between nationalists and separatists. Nationalists support a united Iraq with a strong centralized government in Baghdad and an equitable distribution of revenues from the country’s national resources and tend to advocate a withdrawal of American troops from their country. The separatists support splitting the country into three regions, having each region control its own natural resources and maintaining a strong U.S. military presence.

Even though most key government ministries and the government spokespeople that visiting journalists and politicians from the United States tend to meet largely support the separatist agenda, the majority of the Iraqi people’s democratically elected representatives in parliament support the nationalist agenda. Furthermore, polls have shown a clear majority of Iraqis support national unity and a strong central government.

If this Senate plan is adopted, there would likely be an outbreak or civil war within the separate Sunni and Shiite areas. Already, in the southern part of the country, there has been heavy fighting between nationalist and separatist Shiite militias. In the central part of the country, Sunni tribal leaders and other nationalists have been fighting al-Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni separatists. This would only worsen in the event of a formal partition.

Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco.

National Catholic Reporter, November 2, 2007

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