Iraq: A Problematic Partitioning

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., presides over a hearing on Iraq before the committee, Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2007, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh) AP Photo

This column was written by Stephen Schwartz.

On Monday, June 18, some of Washington's "usual suspects" in the controversy over the Mesopotamian war assembled at the invitation of Sen. Joseph Biden, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and George Washington University professor Amitai Etzioni. The topic for debate was the so-called "Plan Z" for Iraq, which Biden has embraced and which calls for a "soft partition" of that country.

With Etzioni moderating, the participants were 10 representatives of Beltway culture. I was the only speaker who did not condemn neoconservatism, lash out at President George W. Bush, or declare the Iraq war unwinnable. Other commentators included Michael O'Hanlon of Brookings, Marina Ottaway from the Carnegie Endowment, and two prominent neo-isolationists, Ivan Eland of the Independent Institute and Christopher Preble of the Cato Institute. The Senate hearing room was, to put it simply, filled with the atmosphere of "cut and run."

As redacted by Etzioni in a paper titled "Plan Z: For a Community Based Security Plan for Iraq," the Biden proposal calls for a "high devolution state" in Mesopotamia. Iraq would be broken up into districts with Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and Shia majorities, and such considerable local control as to render the Iraqi national state almost nonexistent. The Etzioni paper included a number of statements to which I objected, based on my own consultations with Iraqi Arab (both Shia and Sunni) and Kurdish intellectuals and clerics, as well my experience in the former Yugoslavia. Bosnia-Herzegovina, thanks to the Dayton Agreement of 1995, was repeatedly invoked as a success story for partition.

Decentralization of political power is hardly a novelty in global politics — note the recent pro-independence vote in Scotland — and there are obviously worse options for Iraq. But the Biden "solution" is problematical. It uses federalization as a pretext for a partition that, even if in "soft" form, would be an incentive for more, not less, bloodshed. Oil, too often cited, is not the only issue in Iraq on which distinct religious and ethnic communities are at odds. Land and water resources are objects of rivalry. Mixed families and villages would be even more violently divided by partition, exacting psychological injuries for generations to come. The intentional uprooting of communities is simply forced relocation. Supporters of "Plan Z" write in a carefree manner about "voluntary ethnic relocation" in Iraq, but no community in history has voluntarily accepted relocation.

The Biden-Etzioni sketch presents an Iraq in which all groups — Arab Sunnis, the long-oppressed Shia majority, the Kurds — are viewed as sharing equal responsibility for the crisis of the state. But national identity and sectarianism cannot be judged as if they were neutral phenomena. The division in Iraq is primarily a consequence of a long period of domination by Arab Sunnis.

As exemplified by the Iraqi Kurds, nationalist and religious-identity movements can establish stability on the territories they inhabit when the community is homogeneous, its demands are perceived as largely resolved, and the community feels itself to be "masters in its own house." Conflict may then be mainly avoided, as in Québec, Catalonia, or Slovenia. It is for this reason that in Iraqi Kurdistan, as noted in the Etzioni document, "according to Major General Benjamin Mixon . . . because Kurdish areas are patrolled by Kurdish troops, 'there's no need' for an American presence in Kurdistan." I would add that Saudi-financed Wahhabi terror in Kurdistan, led by the so-called Ansar al-Islam, was handily defeated by the Kurds.

"Plan Z", however, would encourage Sunni radicals, Shia militias, and Kurdish combatants to press for full control over the areas in which they claim a majority constituency. Many participants in the panel took the position that since bad things have already happened, there is no way to stop them. But that ethnic expulsions, segregation of neighborhoods, formation of uncontrolled militias, and other atrocities have taken place in many parts of Iraq does not mean that they should be legitimized. They should not. Where one group has committed injustice over a long period, that injustice should be recognized and rectified. Where another group has demanded enhanced autonomy over its affairs, that call should be heeded. A short-term appearance of peace through appeasement of radicals who have committed ghastly atrocities is not a solution.

The Biden plan includes other ill-advised novelties. It suggests that tax income be radically devolved from the central authority in Baghdad to new, ethnically — or religiously pure — districts. Tax "repatriation" may work in some countries, but in Iraq there are serious dangers of increased corruption in enhanced local-authority income.

The plan also calls for rigorous regional border control, with residents of one district barred from entry into any other. This can only lead to dissolution and hard, not soft, partition. Even the so-called "Serbian Republic" in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which maintains a separate political administration, does not impose such border checkpoints, although the illegal Serbian zone north of Mitrovica in Kosovo does. Internal border controls requiring interregional or interprovincial checkpoints exist in no other "normal" country and would not contribute to the normalization of Iraq.

In a truly bizarre excursus, the Etzioni document states that the now twice-bombed golden-domed Shia shrine at Samarra should be left in the hands of Sunnis, since they are a majority in the Samarra area. A week after the second assault on the shrine, one must ask how this could make sense. Sunnis will not honor, protect, or refurbish the shrine, which, by the way, is supposed to be rebuilt by UNESCO. From the Shia perspective, to hand it over to the Sunnis for reconstruction or security would be a flagrant provocation — entrusting a religious treasure to the vandals intent on destroying it.

Etzioni has suggested that in Iraq the U.S. should "separate both warring parties without 'tilting' towards one or the other." This merely recapitulates the false policy of moral equivalence pursued by Europe in reaction to the Yugoslav wars, especially in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Failure to recognize responsibility for aggression and terrorism rewards aggression and terrorism. Serbs attacked Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnians did not attack Serbia. Sunni terrorism is the main problem in Iraq now, and is supported by Wahhabi extremists in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. When Sunni terrorists die in Iraq, their pictures and biographies appear in Saudi media. Notwithstanding Iranian assistance to and incitement of the Shia militias, to suggest moral equivalency between the Sunni terrorists and the Shia majority is to send the wrong message to the mainly-Shia Iraqi government and people: that the United States is prepared to abandon them. It is also the wrong message to send to Sunni radicals: that the U.S. is ready to placate them.

Etzioni noted that Biden "in an article comparing Iraq to Bosnia, advocates a three-region solution." The de facto partition imposed by the Dayton Accords was not and is not a solution. Bosnia-Herzegovina is an impoverished country prevented from achieving a level of reconstruction and success comparable to that in Croatia. It even, incredibly enough, lags behind Kosovo in some respects. Success is not measured simply by the end of violence. It must also be based on the rehabilitation of society. On that score, the international community has badly failed Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. There is no possibility in sight of curtailment of the foreign military presence in Kosovo.

Finally, the Biden plan argues that the Iraqi Arab Sunnis need to be convinced that either present Iraqi governance or "soft partition" is in their best interests. In fact, Iraqi Sunni radicals need to be convinced that Saudi Arabia, mainly, along with the international Wahhabi movement and Syria, will no longer supply them with finances, volunteers, and easy entry into Iraq for terrorism. That is essentially a matter of U.S. relations with Riyadh and Damascus.

Ultimately, such policies cannot be decided from inside the Beltway. The future of Iraq remains with the Iraqis. It is somewhat strange to see experts in a place once identified with "realism" and the status quo, and now, often enough, with a critique of neoconservative democratization, suddenly embrace a plan for the partition of Iraq. Take it from someone who has spent 20 years involved with ex-Yugoslavia: Partition is potentially more radical and destructive than democratization would ever be.

By Stephen Schwartz
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  • Kristin Dross

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