As US leaders cast about for ideas on how to pull the Iraq conflict out of the jaws of catastrophe one notion that has become very vogue is the partition of Iraq. Leslie Gelb, Peter Galbraith, and Senator Joseph Biden have all asserted in various forums that the road out of the Iraq quagmire lies in some form of tripartite division. Though this idea is often dressed in euphemisms like "federalism" or "confederation" (Biden writes of giving each region "breathing space" to manage its own affairs), it invariably reduces to division of Iraq into three independent states: one Kurd, one Sunni, one Shi'ite. This notion is superficially appealing for obvious reasons. Iraq right now is a portrait of sectarian strife. What better resolution to the problem than allowing the "sects" to go their separate ways? Unfortunately, as seductive as such a notion appears while one focuses on the current moment, it evaporates like a desert mirage as soon as one contemplates the history of Iraq and the larger region.
The greatest problem with any partition scheme centers on the Kurds. Unlike the Arabic Iraqi splinter groups the Kurds genuinely do desire their own independent and sovereign nation. The Kurdish nation is a dream deferred, Kurds still nurse lingering bitterness over Allied promises of "self-determination" in the immediate aftermath of WWI that have never been made good. US leaders seem to take for granted that Iraq's Kurds will blithely accept any "federalist" plan that is dictated to them. Yet nationalist passions run deep, and any steps toward greater Kurdish independence could easily snowball into a secessionist movmement, a development that would surely portend both deepening civil war in Iraq and a widening regional conflict. The natural boundaries of Kurdistan are not confined to Iraqi territory, Kurds are also a majority in parts of Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Those nations would go to war to prevent the emergence of a sovereign Kurdistan so as to staunch secessionist aspirations among their own Kurds. Moreover, the grant of any degree of sovereignty to Iraqi Kurds would cause enormous anger and resentment throughout the Arab world. The reduction of an Arab state to create a Kurdish nation would undoubtedly be compared to the international community's failure to reduce the Jewish state to create an Arab nation in Palestine. This would play directly to the rhetoric of groups like Hamas and Al Qaeda and would undermine US efforts throughout the Middle East.
As problematic as the situation of the Kurds is for any "federalist" plan, the condition of Iraq's Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs is little better. Neither community possesses the requisite coherence for functional nationhood. The Sunni minority would be left in control of a rump territory alienated from its economic and social centers of gravity. As the Sunnis were for years the proprietors of the Iraqi state that community's chief assets are concentrated in the "alpha city" of Baghdad, which would surely not be incorporated into the new "Sunni republic" and is in any case highly ethnically mixed. Such a scheme would be akin to asking the outer boroughs of New York City to carry on without any economic or political ties to Manhattan.
Iraq's Shi'ites, on the other hand, appear quite cohesive while the US occupation casts into sharp relief their differences with the Sunnis. But the Shi'ite community is impacted by historical forces that subvert its potential for functional political autonomy in the long term. The collective identity of Iraqi Shi'ites resides in their participation in a confessional community that crosses national and ethnic boundaries. Though divisions between Iraqis and Iranians, Arabs and Persians, are minimized by the current conditions of sectarian strife, those distinctions have historically been sources of profound friction. Very soon after the establishment of an Iraqi "Shi'ite republic" conflict will break out between those figures whose roots in the Shi'ite clerical establishment incline them toward closer ties with Iran and those individuals whose deep-seated feelings of Arab nationalism make the prospect of "Persion domination" anathema. The ultimate result would be a "republic" at war with both the Sunni community and itself.
"Iraq" as it exists today is obviously a terrain riven by social and cultural forces that make any degree of political coherence highly problematic. This does not indicate, however, that further fragmentation would be constructive. In historical terms one could argue that Iraq has arrived at its current impasse through hyper-fragmentation rather than the reverse. In the immediate aftermath of WWI Arab leaders who lobbied for independent nationhood on Wilsonian principles of "self determination" envisioned the Arab Middle East divided into far fewer nations than currently exist. Current political divisions express the colonial ambitions of Britain and France more than any intrinsic national consciousness of the peoples of the Middle East. The larger independent "Mesopotamia" envisioned by Arab leaders in the early 20th century would have had a more even admixture of Sunni and Shi'ite citizens, and might have been less susceptible to sectarian suspicion and violence.
In any case US plans for further partitioning of Iraq are deeply ill advised. The Biden-Gelb Plan, for example, calls for Iraqi "federalism," but such principles are already written into the Iraqi constitution. What, therefore, is new in this plan? The answer lies in provision 1: "Form regional governments -- Kurd, Sunni and Shiite -- responsible for administering their own regions." In other words, because the national government established by the US occupation is not working, the US should establish regional governments to rule in its stead. But if the US could not succeed in setting up a functioning national government why should it have any better luck setting up regional governments? According to the plan the central government would remain in order to oversee "truly common interests...like oil production and revenue," but a government that lacks the power to maintain the peace can hardly be expected to have the power to enforce a division of oil revenues, especially when its authority has been further eroded through the creation of three regional sub-governments with which it is forced to compete. If there is dire strife now in the absence of three regional governments it will only grow worse once those governments exist and are set to squabbling with one-another over oil revenues. The Biden-Gelb plan is effectively a recipe for replacing one dysfunctional government with three even more deeply dysfunctional governments, thus trading a slow-burning civil conflict for an all-out interregional civil war.
The lesson the US should take from its experience in Iraq thus far is this: Iraqi society is impelled by forces over which the US has little or no control, thus US meddling will most likely do more harm than good. If the government the US has assisted in creating does not operate as well as we like the answer is not to subvert it by creating new institutions that diminish its authority. Iraq may well be moving in the direction of some kind of functional partition, but the US should not imagine that it can "catch that wave" by way of retaining some residual influence over Iraqi politics. History dictates that within its current territorial boundaries (which for geopolitical reasons are unlikely to change in the near future) Iraqi society requires some form of central authority to function at all. Having planted the seeds of a central government the US would be very unwise to "change horses in mid stream," if only because this would undermine the already slim chances of the Baghdad government upon which the hope of any positive outcome rides. Ultimately the US must step back and let the Iraqis negotiate a modus vivendi between and among themselves, rooted in institutions of their own design and creation. The resulting outcome may not be entirely pleasing to the people or leaders of the US and its allies, but it is certain to be more constructive than what will result from further attempts by the US to compel a resolution of its own devising.