As I was re-reading Ralph Peters' New Glory today, specifically a section dealing with the American experience in Iraq, I got to thinking about the present and the future of that now forever Saddam-free country. The ongoing sectarian violence that has been plaguing the country since, especially, the bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra last February had led to some serious thinking about a future division of the country. Much of this has been in terms of maintaining the country's territorial integrity but dividing it into three nominally-autonomous sections with Baghdad acting as the central government to handle external affairs. I wonder: is this going far enough? Would the best interests of Iraqis be to partition the country into three separate states along sectarian lines?
We must first recall that the state of Iraq today is a legacy of empire and the First World War. Created in 1920 by the British, Iraq's borders do not take into account the significant differences within those arbitrary boundaries. The Shi'ites and the Suunis have historical grievances dating back centuries, and the Kurds--who have lived under considerable autonomy since the early 1990s--are not Arabs living in a predominantly Arab state, comprising 15-20% of the country's population and living in their own northern enclave. So Iraq is really a monstrosity that belied the concept set forth by Woodrow Wilson of national self-determination, the idea that every people should have their own state. I will return to this theme later.
The violence in Iraq today has been characterized, with some legitimacy, as a low-level civil war. The Kurds have largely stayed out of the fray, but the Shi'a-Suuni violence occurring in the country's middle provinces provides us with daily evidence that makes the case against a unified Iraq emerging from Saddam's ouster. The U.S. troop presence throughout the country has been insufficient to curb the violence. The disempowered Suunis, having enjoyed the benefit of ruling Iraq for decades despite making up only 35% of the country's population, have been at the heart of the insurgency fighting against the occupation. They also overwhelmingly disapproved of the country's constitution in 2005, suggesting that their political ambitions may well never be reached within Iraq as it is composed today.
If this low-level civil war continues to escalate, the immediate future may well give way to the War(s) of the Iraqi Succession, much as occurred in the 1990s when Yugoslavia rapidly disintegrated into a number of states along ethnic/religious lines. Unless the American initiative to increase their presence in the country to forestall this nightmare scenario works, it may become time for the government in Baghdad to start examining the option of partitioning the state through a political mechanism in order to prevent the catastrophic bloodshed that would occur in a war of secession. It is a process that would have to be conducted fairly to all parties involved, as well as take into consideration the geopolitical ramifications that such an avenue would have on the region. An unfair process that further disempowers Suunis or leaves the Shi'ite majority with significant grievances would only give way to future irredentist wars to "reclaim" territory that the parties believe is rightly theirs.
What are those key geopolitical consequences? Potentially, Iran would be strengthened, lending more credibility to its claims of regional hegemony by exerting significant influence over the Shi'ite population of a rump Iraq. Turkey would not respond well to an independent Kurdistan on its southern frontier. The status quo and the much-cherished "sanctity of borders" would fall by the wayside. The negotiations over the division of territory, Iraq's oil, access to the Strait of Hormuz, and religious sites would be time-consuming, leaving great uncertainty to fester within the region. And potentially most importantly of all, the Suuni regions of Iraq--left as they are now--could become a new haven for Islamist terrorism in the same order of magnitude that Taliban-era Afghanistan served as a base for al Qaeda. These are all critical considerations that would have to be factored into the equation of any discussion about partitioning Iraq.
There are positive potentialities as well. An independent Kurdistan would advance one of the great notions of any American president that much further, and could result in legitimate diplomatic relations opening up between the Kurds and Turkey regarding the future fate of the latter's significant Kurdish population. Iraqi Kurdistan already has in place many of the mechanisms needed to function as an independent democratic state, and giving it complete autonomy could well serve the interests of freedom. It is by no means assured that Iraq's Shi'ites would look to Tehran for assistance or security; having been freed from Saddam's rule by the United States, an independent and democratic Shi'ite state carved out of Iraq may well act as a bulwark against Iranian ambitions without the odiousness that Iraq under Saddam served as during the 1980s. The Suunis, having been given political territory and authority of their own again, could be placated and renounce violence, turning against the foreign jihadists in their midst. Lastly, one more of the last vestiges of empire would be wiped from the map, giving way to justice for each of Iraq's major demographic constituencies.
As with any major political decision, there are significant reasons to partition Iraq and against dividing the country. Both sides of the argument are compelling and have their own merits and drawbacks. I am not yet fully convinced that this is the time to say partition is the only way to save Iraq and its people from the daily orgy of violence in the country. Nonetheless, I do believe that it is a credible option that should remain on the table to be considered by the factions in Iraq's government and by the United States and its coalition allies. It is a decision that will ultimately be made by the Iraqi people, and that decision should be supported by the "international community." There should be no outcry about the sanctity of national boundaries given the wholly legitimate claims to be made on behalf of national self-determination, and the fear of moving away from the status quo is one that is largely unfounded. The situation in Iraq remains fluid and success or failure--by the Americans or of Iraq as a state--is by no means assured at this time.