2006 April 22 Saturday
Iraq: Loose Federation Or Partition?

Writing in the UK's Prospect Magazine Gareth Stansfield argues that the best we can hope for in Iraq is a loose federation of three ethnic provinces.

Despite the imminent formation of a government of national unity, Iraq is splintering into its three historic provinces. The break-up can be managed, but it cannot be avoided. The western powers and Iraqi nationalists must now accept that radical federalism is the only alternative to civil war

The British and American governments still take the position that Humpty Dumpty hasn't fallen off the wall yet. Therefore all the King's horses and all the King's men pretend that they are not trying to put the Humpty man back together again.

Stansfield believes (wrongly in my view) that the break-up of Iraq could get molded into a return to the status quo of how Iraq was governed during the Ottoman Empire. My problem with that view: What army will serve the role of the Ottoman Turkish military that maintained control?

The partitioning, or rather radical decentralisation, of Iraq is under way. This should not necessarily be seen as a problem. Historical Iraq was a place of three semi-independent parts—Kurdish north, Sunni centre and Shia south—within the loose framework of the Ottoman empire. It is the centralised Iraq—starting with Britain's creation of the modern state in 1921-23 and reaching its nadir in nearly three decades of Saddam Hussein's dictatorship—that has failed and should be allowed to die.

There are, however, powerful forces refusing to contemplate partition or "hard federalism." The radical Shia movement led by Muqtada al-Sadr, emerging as one of the most powerful groups in Iraq, rejects federalism as a divide-and-rule tactic and defends Iraqi identity in traditional nationalist terms. Opposition among the Arab Sunnis who have traditionally dominated the state is even stronger. Whether radical Islamists, ex-Ba'athists or secularists, Arab Sunnis see federalism as undermining everything they have stood for in nearly a century of Iraqi history.

The "hard federalists" want to control the whole place. But they are divided on which faction should rule. That's a formula for a very intense civil war.

David Goodhart found much to agree about in Stansfield's essay and Goodhart also believes that a loose federalism short of partition is possible for Iraq.

Last year's constitution is full of federal phrases, but there is no real agreement between the centralists (the Sunnis and the more nationalist, anti-Iranian Shias led by Moqtada al-Sadr) and the federalists (the Kurds and the SCIRI-supporting Shias) on the things that matter: oil, the role of the national parliament and the army.

Returning to a looser, federal country based on the three Ottoman provinces of Mosul, Baghdad and Basra does not mean partition - there is still a role for a reduced central state - but it does need very careful management. Stansfield argues that some of the alleged problems with radical federalism, such as an Iranian takeover of the south or a Turkish "veto", are not as serious as they seem. Turkey is heavily involved in the Kurdish north, both politically and economically, and could live with decentralisation. But there are tricky regional border disputes in the north, and many of the biggest cities, particularly Baghdad itself, have very mixed populations. Large Sunni and Shia groups might end up as restive minorities in powerful regions with governments hostile to their interests.

The "careful management" theorists for a confederated set of 3 provinces (Kurdistan, Sunnistan, and Shiastan) based on an Ottoman Empire model face one insurmountable problem: The 3 stans would have no Ottoman Empire with ruthless Turkish soldiers over them to keep them part of a larger state. The only groups in Iraq who want to keep Iraq together want to keep it together so their groups can rule the other groups. The Sunnis want to rule over the Shias as they used to. Shias such as Sadr want to rule over a central Iraqi state. Unlike the Arab factions the Kurds want out of Iraq altogether and already have de facto independence. The only power in Iraq that might serve as forceful maintainer of a loosely federated system is the United States. But the American people do not want to hang around in Iraq enforcing a political settlement that leaves no single internal group in charge for decades to come. A look at the trend in Bush's approval rating makes clear the lack of public enthusiasm for colonialism.

I expect to see continued ethnic cleansing in the Shiastan and Sunnistan zones that will make each zone increasingly more ethnically homogeneous. Only US withdrawal might put an end to the ethnic cleansing. But it is not clear to me that US withdrawal would do the trick at this point. The amount of distrust and animosity between Shias and Sunnis at this point might have reached a point where their mutual hostility perpetuates.

Then is partition an option? The answer depends on whether the Shias will find enough motive to conquer and rule the Sunnis. If the Shias won't put up that big of a fight then the Sunnis might be able to keep control of their area. But the borders between the Shia and Sunni areas - most notably ethnically divided Baghdad - are going to continue to be scenes of a lot of violence.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2006 April 22 09:38 PM  MidEast Iraq Partition


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