Support for Iraq Partition: Cynical and Dangerous

The Senate is marking the fifth anniversary of its lamentable vote authorizing the U.S. invasion of Iraq by advocating a path that would only increase that country’s enormous suffering.

On September 26, the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate voted 75–23 in support of an amendment that calls for a “federal” solution to the internal conflicts in their country, which has been widely interpreted as a call for the de facto partition of the country. The resolution, sponsored by Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman and Democratic presidential candidate Joseph Biden of Delaware, was backed by every Democratic senator except for Russell Feingold (who voted against it) and Barack Obama (who wasn’t present for the vote.)

Iraq’s constitution already gives inhabitants of the country’s 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. Instead, the Biden amendment calls on the initiative to come from “Iraq’s major factions,” identified by the resolution’s co-sponsor Senator Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican who is also seeking the presidency, as Iraq’s three “main ethno-sectarian groups.” Whereas most Iraqis calling for a federal system advocate a bottom-up process based on geography as a means to counter the threat of a return to dictatorship in Baghdad, the Senate plan constitutes a top-down solution from the outside based on ethnicity and religion.

Iraqi Rejection

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 Shi’ite, Sunni and secular blocs in the Iraqi parliament, these elected political leaders argued that “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.”

Furthermore, polls have shown a clear majority of Iraqis support national unity and a strong central government.

Even the U.S. State Department found the Senate resolution too extreme. “As we have said in the past, attempts to partition or divide Iraq by intimidation, force or other means into three separate states would produce extraordinary suffering and bloodshed,” read a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, adding that, “the United States has made clear our strong opposition to such attempts” and “partition is not on the table.”

The Consequences of Partition

U.S. forces have constructed walls and other barriers to separate Sunnis from Shi’ites in formally 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 Sunnis and Shi’ites are being forced from their homes in that city every month.

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

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 intermixing of these populations in Baghdad, Mosul, and Kirkuk and scores of other cities, the potential exists for the most violent break-up 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 in to 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 a sectarian-defined regime would likely be far worse than under a secular government.

The Kurds, with their distinct language and culture, have a far more legitimate claim for self-rule than do the Shi’ite Arabs and Sunni Arabs. They already experience significant autonomy already, however, as they had a full dozen years prior to the U.S. invasion. Outright independence, however, could inspire the Kurds in Turkey, a NATO ally, to escalate their struggle for independence, prompting a full-scale resumption of the Turko-Kurdish War and a Turkish invasion of northern Iraq.

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

Nationalists and Separatists

This Senate push for dividing up the country also ignores that perhaps the most significant divisions in the country are not between Shi’ites 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.

Within the ruling Shi’ite Bloc, known as the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), the two largest parties which hold the most important government positions – the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Dawa Party – support the separatist agenda. However, at least twice as many UIA parliamentarians are supporters of Fahila, the Sadrists, and other Shi’ite groups which identify with the nationalists. The Sunni Bloc is split more or less evenly between the two tendencies and the Kurdish bloc supports the separatists. The secular and smaller parliamentary lists overwhelmingly support the nationalists. In total, even though most key government ministries – and the government spokespeople visiting journalists and politicians from the United States tend to meet – support the separatists’ agenda, the majority of the Iraqi people’s democratically-elected representatives support the nationalist agenda.

If this Senate plan is adopted, therefore, there would likely be an outbreak of civil war within the separate Sunni and Shi’ite areas. Already, in the southern part of the country, there has been heavy fighting between nationalist and separatist Shi’ite 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.

Divide and Rule

Top analysts in the CIA and State Department, as well as large numbers of scholars knowledgeable about the Middle East, issued warnings prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq that an American conquest could result in fomenting violent ethnic and sectarian conflicts. It appears that this was not seen as necessarily a negative thing, at least by some U.S. policy makers.

It has long been the goal of a number of the intellectual architects of U.S. invasion of Iraq to see the Middle East broken up into smaller ethnic or sectarian mini-states, which would include not only large stateless nationalities like the Kurds, but Maronite Christians, Druze, Arab Shi’ites, and others. Such a policy comes not out of respect for the right of self-determination—indeed, these neoconservatives have been steadfast opponents of the Palestinians’ desire for statehood, even alongside a secure Israel — but out of an imperial quest for divide-and-rule. The division of the Middle East has long been seen as a means of countering the threat of pan-Arab nationalism and, more recently, pan-Islamist movements. Indeed, less than five years prior to becoming major figures in the Bush foreign policy team, David Wurmser, Richard Perle, and Douglas Feith predicted that a post-Saddam Iraq would likely be “ripped apart” by sectarianism and other cleavages but called on the United States to “expedite” such a collapse anyway.

Senate Democrats have now effectively put themselves on record supporting this cynical neo-conservative effort of divide-and-rule.

Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime was not a “Sunni” government. Not only was it decidedly secular in orientation, its leaders were not predominantly from the Sunni minority. For example, one of Saddam’s two vice-presidents was Christian and the other was Kurdish. And, in the infamous “deck of cards” of deposed Iraqi leaders most wanted by U.S. occupation forces at the time of the regime’s overthrow, 36 of the 55 were Shi’ites.

Nor has the outbreak of sectarian violence in recent years a result of ancient divisions breaking out in the open as soon as as an autocratic regime was overthrown. There was no widespread animosity between the Iraqi Sunnis and Shi’ites prior to the U.S. invasion. Theologically, there are fewer differences between Sunnis and Shi’ites than there are between Catholics and Protestants. In small Iraqi towns of mixed populations with only one mosque, Sunnis and Shi’ites worshiped together. Intermarriage, particularly in urban areas, was not uncommon. Clashes between Sunnis and Shi’ites were largely seen as something out of medieval history.

U.S. Occupation Authorities

Much of Iraq’s current divisions can be traced to the decision of U.S. occupation authorities immediately following the conquest to abolish the Iraqi army and purge the government bureaucracy – both bastions of secularism – thereby creating a vacuum that was soon filled by sectarian parties and militias. By removing large numbers of the mostly secular urban, professional, and managerial classes who worked for the old Iraqi state and re-establishing an interim government based not on technical skills or representative ideological affiliations but ethnic and religious identity, the result has been government ministries based on sectarian, ethnic and tribal biases, and related problems with nepotism.

As with the French-imposed system in Lebanon, however, such efforts have actually exacerbated divisions, with virtually every political question debated not on its merits, but on which group it potentially benefits or harms. This has led to great instability, with political parties, parliamentary blocs, government ministries, and even military units breaking down along sectarian lines.

Not only has the United States failed to bring a functional democracy to Iraq, neither U.S. forces nor the U.S.-backed Iraqi government in Baghdad has been able to provide the Iraqi people with basic security. This has led many ordinary citizens to turn to extremist sectarian groups for protection, further undermining the Bush administration’s insistence that American forces must remain in Iraq in order to prevent a civil war.

As a result, the tendency in the United States to blame “sectarian conflict” and “long-simmering hatreds” for the Sunni-Shi’ite violence in Iraq is, in effect, blaming the victim.

Instead of pushing for the breakup of Iraq, Congress should instead give priority to healing the wounds caused by the U.S. invasion and occupation. Most of the Sunni resistance has communicated their willingness to end the insurgency and participate in a national unity government provided there is a clear timeline for a full U.S. withdrawal, something the Bush administration rejects. The ruling Shi’ite separatists, meanwhile, have little incentive to compromise as long as they know American troops will keep them in power, something the Bush administration is committed to continuing.

The answer to Iraq’s bitter sectarian and ethnic divide, then, is not partition. The answer is a negotiated withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq.