If Iraq must be divided, here’s the right way to do it

July 4, 2014

Shi'ite volunteers, who have joined the Iraqi army to fight ISIL, hold a sign during a graduation ceremony in Najaf

As Iraq spirals toward chaos and its Kurdish region talks independence, the issue of partition, or federalism, has resurfaced. This is a concept that then-Senator Joe Biden strongly advocated in 2006. Though it would be difficult to accomplish, federalism could still be a helpful element as Iraqis struggle through their current tragic mess.

The appeal of federalism could grow if Iraqi leaders in Baghdad cannot agree soon on a government of national unity, ideally one without Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has proven so divisive. Whether a “soft partition” — meaning the creation of a Sunni autonomous zone to complement the existing Kurdish one — or “hard partition” –meaning the formal redrawing of regional lines — it would seem a natural idea. Not only because of the recent violence, which has caused hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to flee their homes, but also the arbitrariness with which state borders were drawn by the European powers after World War One.

We did a study of the possible soft partition of Iraq in 2007, and found that the new Sunni autonomous zone would need the following:

  • A proportionate share of Iraq’s total oil revenue (perhaps 15 percent to 20 percent) because the Sunni regions generally lack oil resources;
  • An arrangement with Baghdad allowing Sunnistan police to patrol the region’s cities on a routine basis, but with Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kurds continuing to support a national army for the country’s overall defense;
  • A means for Sunnis to safely sell their property so those seeking to leave places like Baghdad (now roughly 10 percent to 15 percent Sunni) could settle in the new autonomous region with enough means to buy homes;
  • An economic transition fund to help create job opportunities for resettled Sunnis;
  • Clearly defined, enforced and monitored minority rights for all Iraqis choosing to stay in regions where they are not in the ethnic/sectarian majority, an inevitability since many Iraqis are in mixed marriages, and
  • Physical protection by a combination of national and local security forces for people relocating.

These ideas should be part of the public conversation today as Iraqis debate their political futures.

Members of the new Iraqi parliament attend a session at the parliament headquarters in BaghdadThe Iraqi constitution even allows for these possibilities. The idea of a Sunni autonomous region, largely protected from any further predations by future Shi’ite leaders in Baghdad, may even persuade moderate Sunni leaders at the national, provincial and tribal levels to support a new government of national unity. In other words, it could help resolve the current crisis.

That said, partition cannot be seen as an alternative to cooperation by Iraqi political leaders across sectarian lines. In fact, to be stabilizing and consistent with U.S. national security goals, restructuring Iraq via one of these means must be done collaboratively, not by fiat by one group or because of developments on the battlefield.

Here’s why. The fundamental U.S. and European goal in Iraq now is neither an intact Iraq nor a partitioned one. We can live with either outcome. The important objective is the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (or ISIL), the terrorist group that now controls large swaths of both Syria and Iraq with its extreme brutality, its strong allegiances to an al Qaeda-like ideology and its ambitions to do even more damage in the region and beyond.

To defeat this group, the West needs the moderate Sunni leaders of Iraq to turn against the Sunni militants and take the lead in the fight, working with the United States through whatever military means we ultimately decide to provide. That cannot happen if these Sunni leaders wind up living in a rump state of “Sunnistan,” created by battlefield realities not political accord, lacking natural resources, unfunded by the central state of Iraq and with significant numbers of their fellow Sunnis still living in diverse cities like Baghdad, where they could be vulnerable to possible Shi’ite pogroms.

Shi'ite volunteers secure the area from predominantly Sunni militants from the Islamic State in the desert region between Kerbala and NajafTo be effective, partition needs to be carefully managed and fair. A Sunni-majority region, to parallel the Kurdish autonomous zone (or a new Kurdish independent state), could perhaps begin slightly north and west of Baghdad and extend up to Mosul in the north and include towns like Fallujah and Ramadi on the way to the Syrian border in the west.

In the end, what is needed is a joint campaign plan for defeating the Islamist militants that is developed and supported by the United States and the region, but led by Iraqi Shi’ite and Sunni and Kurds. That remains the ultimate and nonnegotiable objective.


PHOTO (TOP): Shi’ite volunteers, who have joined the Iraqi army to fight against the predominantly Sunni militants from the radical Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), hold a sign during a graduation ceremony after completing their field training in Najaf, June 27, 2014. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani

PHOTO: Members of the new Iraqi parliament attend a session at the parliament headquarters in Baghdad July 1, 2014. REUTERS/Thaier Al-Sudani

PHOTO:  Shi’ite volunteers secure the area from predominantly Sunni militants from the Islamic State, previously called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in the desert region between Kerbala and Najaf, south of Baghdad, July 3, 2014. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Marjani


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To beak couutntries like Libya,Iraq,Syria is not the solution.
The sole responsibility of unrest is on two current world leaders Putin and Obama who have to change the perspective of the interests of their respective countries.Both need to build trust (Instead of suspicion},with patience.

Posted by gentalman | Report as abusive

The biggest challenge is what to do with Saladdin and Diyala provinces, which are divided between Sunnis and Shiites (the former also includes one of the holiest Shiite shrines, in Samarra). Both have Sunni majorities but the Shiite government will never agree to simply give them up wholesale to a Sunni region. They would need to be partitioned, and that prospect invites both military action and ethnic cleansing in order to create facts on the ground.

Posted by Zapendowski | Report as abusive

Maps have been drawn and redrawn at the whims and convenience of the politically and militarily powerful. Britain did that before. It can always be redrawn, again and again, especially in a volatile and antagonistic region like Middle East.

Posted by boontee | Report as abusive


Posted by kiers | Report as abusive

I cannot think of a single Middle East settlement which came even close to being fair, as seems to be their goal. What is different now? The proposed plan needs to be filed in the dustbin of punditry.

Posted by Bristlecone | Report as abusive

Of course, the option of letting the Iraqis decide how to split their country up isn’t on the table when American imperialists start talking. And why should it be? We have such a long and successful history of remaking countries. Amirite?

Posted by majkmushrm | Report as abusive

US wants Maliki out because without him Iraq will be much weaker and easier for partition.
Partition of Iraq was a main goal of 2003 invasion (thus changed federalistic consitution of Iraq voted under the barrel of the US guns in 2005). US is engaged in financing and training (Saudi Arabia and Qatar are major sponsors) of rebels that invaded Iraq from Syrian/Jordanian/Turkey bases.
I think a standard proxy war will be fought over Iraqi integrity. Russia/Iraq/Iran vs US/Saudi Arabia/Qatar like in good, old days of Cold War edition 1.0.
Only this time Russia has gigantic economic backing by China. On the other hand Sunni states like Saudi Arabia/Kuwait can switch sides. Because the end of the day it is China that will buy all the oil and build the necessary infrastructure for all Middle East countries.

Posted by Wantunbiasednew | Report as abusive

Drawing imaginary lines everywhere, won’t stop people hating each other, and it won’t stop extremist nuts from coming in and trying to screw everything up as much as possible. There’s lines drawn over by Israel, and you see how great that works. These people needed to be babysat for a long time. Long enough that new generations would grow up in retaliative peace, and the old ways of the haters disappeared. Once younger generations grow up with peace, they will be less likely to give that peace up. But that doesn’t happen overnight. It doesn’t even happen in 10 years. It takes longer than that. But the current administration and it’s ‘anti everything’ nut base, wouldn’t allow that to happen. All they’ve done is extend the problem for decades to come.

Posted by dd606 | Report as abusive

We put puppets in place or allow them to be such as the Shah of Iran and then we pull the rug and expect the pent up anger to not boil over?

So we did not learn enough and Saddam was made to go, Mubarak was not support, Ghaddafi was driven out and killed like Saddam, and now Maliki and Karzi are not want as with Assad.

Who did not know that Iraq with the three different who be in the position sooner or later, but President Obama?

Posted by CharlesReed | Report as abusive

Related question is why talking about dividing Ukraine is such a big taboo?

There is deep rift there, cultural and ethnic, between the western and southeastern parts. This rift is now in a full daylight when the western part forces its will by joining the EU (and later NATO) intending to separate from Russia. This is absolutely not acceptable for the southeastern part. We now want to wait, like in Iraq, Sudan, Serbia, until the counter of victims of this conflict reaches huge numbers to start accepting reality? Or, are we supporting single Ukraine due to its position against Russia?

Posted by wirk | Report as abusive

federalism along the suggested lines is the only solution. we cannot expect these groups to live together and should always have had federalism as an option for the Iraqis to vote on. With their history fo warfare it is foolish to believe that nationalism should have priority. The Kurds for one will not hand back their gains and should not be expected to do so.

Posted by ThomasOne | Report as abusive

This is exactly how the Israeli Plan for the Middle East in 1982 had envisioned. The Zionists leaders in the U.S. including the authors of the opinion have since been pushing for instability and destruction in Iraq. The 1982 Plan states “In the short run it is Iraqi power which constitutes the greatest threat to Israel. . . Every kind of inter-Arab confrontation will assist us in the short run and will shorten the way to the more important aim of breaking up Iraq into denominations.”
So, these zealots and fanatic Zionists driven by hatred to any peace and stability in the region will never rest until bloodshed is the norm in Iraq. They are using American resources to achieve this heinous crime.

Posted by JohnGlobe | Report as abusive