2006 August 31 Thursday
Iraq Partition An Option?

Michael E. O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution makes an argument for partitioning Iraq.

There is what might be called a "Plan A-" option - facilitating voluntary ethnic relocation within Iraq while retaining a confederal governing structure. We should offer individuals who want to protect themselves and their families the chance to move to an Iraq territory more hospitable to their ethnicity and/or religion.

To a substantial extent this is happening already, but the 100,000 or more internally displaced Iraqis have received scant help or protection to date. With Plan A- as a policy, not an accident, the international community and Iraqi government could help offer housing and jobs to those wishing to move, as well as protection en route. Houses left behind would revert to government ownership, to be offered to individuals of other ethnic groups who wanted them, in what would largely become a program of swapping. Funds for some new home construction would be needed as well.

To help move the Shias and Sunnis away from each other it would not be necessary to state that a big carving up of Iraq was in progress. Just help them do something many already want to do: Get away from the other group in order to be more safe.

The Kurds want independence.

At this crowded market place in the center of the city of Irbil, almost everyone wants to see more than just autonomy within Iraq.

One man says, "For many years we have struggled and died for our freedom."

Another says, "The Iraqi government has not done anything for us."

And still another says, "Iraq should be divided into four or three regions just like Shias and Sunni and Kurdistan."

But the Kurds have been so successful at keeping the Shia Arab-Sunni Arab civil war out of Kurdistan that Arabs are flocking to the peaceful Kurdish region as a safe refuge.

Thousands of Arabs like Hamid have arrived among the ethnic Kurds of the soaring northern mountains, fleeing the violence gripping much of Iraq since the bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in February pushed the country to the brink of civil war.

The trend is a stunning reversal for Iraq's Kurdistan, home mainly to non-Arab Kurds. During the 1980s, tens of thousands of Kurds were killed in the region during Saddam Hussein's military campaign, which emptied entire villages.

In June, Hamid set up a private clinic in Sulaimaniya, in partnership with a cardiologist and an orthopaedics specialist -- both of whom are also from Baghdad, 330 km (205 miles) to the south.

The Kurdish majority can maintain order in the Kurdish region only because they are the overwhelming majority. Therefore a small number of Arabs can find safety in the Kurdish region. But should so many Arabs flood in that they become a large minority or majority then the civil war would start up in the Kurdish region as well.

Some observers claim many partitioning efforts have not worked out well.

The critics of partition, on the other hand, see separation as a kind of ethnic cleansing with a human face. In a 2000 statistical study published in World Politics, "Partition as a Solution to Ethnic War," Yale political science professor Nicholas Sambanis found that partitions did not significantly reduce the risk of wars breaking out again. He points to the 1998-2000 war between Ethiopia and Eritrea after a 1993 partition; the violent 1992 collapse of the partition of Somaliland; and the recurring wars between India and Pakistan since partition, including the 1971 partition that sliced Bangladesh from Pakistan -- not to mention the post-partition Arab-Israeli wars of 1956, 1967, 1973 and 1982. He warns against carving up warring African countries into many little monoethnic states, which would only replace civil war with international war.

I do not see these examples as proving the anti-partition case. If these countries hadn't been partitioned the result could have been even worse.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2006 August 31 10:07 PM  MidEast Iraq Partition

Stephen said at September 1, 2006 12:53 AM:

I agree that partition is the obvious solution, but the devil is in the detail, and that detail makes it all too hard.

To have a Kurdish region we at least need a common ethnicity to bind the people together, but there are real disputes about who is and isn't a Kurd. For instance, some peole draw the map to encompass at least four dialects (many think they aren't merely dialects but actually separate languages). Throw in three separate alphabets and several religions and we've got real problems drawing the border. Throw in the natural desire that the border encompass the odd oil field and we're suddenly talking about ethnically Sunni or Turkmen territory moving into Kurdish hands.

Then there's the strategic problems for a new Kurdish homeland, the Kurdish bit of Iraq is a tiny bit (20% or less) of the general area that could loosely be called kurdish. Turkey would quickly move in to any new Kurdish territory - in fact, they'd probably go all the way to Kirkut to protect the Turkmen enclaves. Then there's its inconvenient location - land locked, small, surrounded by enemies, and with no way to get its oil to market without the cooperation of those enemies. The place would soon revert to its norm throughout history - tribal warfare.

Then we need to look at the arab sunni/shia divide - where would we draw the line there? South of Bahgdad would be the obvious place, but the US certainly wouldn't want a separate Shia state that'd ally itself with Iran and cut off Bahgdad from the gulf and bring Iranian influence right up against the border of Saudi Arabia.

Daniel said at September 1, 2006 12:22 PM:

All we are saying, is give partition a chance.

Randall Parker said at September 1, 2006 6:02 PM:


I love it.


Our current detail is that the Iraqis are killing each other and there is no end in sight for the killing. Another detail: They are already ethnically cleansing each other. We either let it happen as a result of people fleeing in fear or we speed it up and reduce the death toll.

I figure our "leaders" are going to keep bumping along on the de facto partition road while pretending that things can get better. But I want to be on record that I've been arguing for partition repeatedly over the years. See my Iraq Partition category archive for the history of my posts on the subject.

Stephen said at September 1, 2006 8:26 PM:

I don't believe that partition will actually help - they'll soon cross their borders and it'll be a long nasty war that will inevitable drag in Saudi Arabia and Iran.

However, I do have a solution based on these observations:
(1) Until a couple of years ago Shia and Sunni in Iraq lived together quite happily;
(2) Until a couple of years ago there was a lot of Shia/Sunni inter-marriage;
(3) Historically, Iraq has been essentially secular (by arab standards) - including during the pre-Saddam era (ie it wasn't forced);
(4) The killing only began a few years ago following a certain invasion;
(5) Tribes are crucial in arab culture and most Iraqi tribes are mixed Shia/Sunni;
(6) There are around 150 tribes in Iraq;
(7) Those tribes govern themselves reasonably well and they have family relationships with neighbouring tribes;
(8) The tribes also have concepts of honour and responsibility - both within and between tribes.

Based on the above, I think that the current system of government in Iraq is flawed - it imposes a western model of government on a fundamentally tribal culture. This error was aggravated by the US going about it in a top-down manner in an environment where it was seen as the invader. In those circumstances, is it any wonder that the Iraqi government doesn't have any street cred?

The tribes are the solution, they can fix all of this violence and at the same time they can hold together Iraq.

Randall Parker said at September 1, 2006 8:34 PM:


The golden years of intermarriage were under Saddam. Well, he's still alive and no doubt would love to be in charge once again.

Seriously though, Saddam ruled using relatives and tribe. One tribe has to be on top. They aren't all going to share power.

Stephen said at September 1, 2006 8:44 PM:

The above list also includes some basic political structures - informal federations etc. Hell, its almost like you could fashion a government out of the component pieces...

Sure it wouldn't be Washington-style big government, and there wouldn't be lots of money for consultants, lobbyists and think-tanks.

...nevertheless, it just might work.

Stephen said at September 1, 2006 8:50 PM:

Then Saddam was right - tribes work in arab society. To ignore that fact merely because Saddam used it is to cut off your nose to spite your face.

Stephen said at September 1, 2006 9:04 PM:

I'd also like to add:

1    Don't throw the baby out with the bath water.

2    A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

3    If the shoe fits, wear it.

4    There's more than one way to skin a cat.

Guy said at September 4, 2006 1:30 PM:

Partitioning Iraq has probably been the plan from the get-go. Of course, you can't tell the American public that you want to go to Iraq and foment civil war, so you go there claiming to be "spreading democracy" and then later say "oopsie!"

Israel and its neocons in the United States were the driving force behind the war. They've been allied with the Kurds for years. The Kurds are sitting on top of roughly half of Iraq's oil. There's already been talk of pumping oil from Mosul to Haifa - it wouldn't surprise me if this was one of Israel's main reasons for sending the US into Iraq in the first place (the other being to just smash up any strong Arab states in the region).

Robert Griffin said at September 13, 2006 1:42 AM:

Well, if our intention is the decimation and final disappearance of the Chaldean/Assyrian/Syriac people from Iraq, then such a division is the way to go about it. In the Sunni and Shi'ite areas, the Chaldo-Assyrians would be unwelcome as non-Arab Christians, whose home language might quite likely be a modern Aramaic dialect. In the Kurdish areas, where there may be less religious persecution, the issue of ethnicity arises. These folks are not Kurds, and may not speak Kurdish at all. The behavioural tendencies of the Kurds towards the Assyrians can be seen from their mistreatment of the Assyrians in the no-fly zone during the 1990s, the suppression of the Chaldean vote in a number of Chaldean villages, the murder of a couple of Assyrian campaign workers by Kurdish Peshmerga last year, the murder of an Assyrian shepherd within the past 30 days...

For those who don't know who the Assyrians are, or why I use so many terms:
The Assyrians are primarily Aramaic speakers ancestrally from nothern Iraq, though many are more recently (1920s) from south-eastern Turkey and the Urmiah area in Iran. They are Christians, primarily of three groups. The oldest religious division is called 'Nestorian' by outsiders. The next oldest group is the Syriacs, who are primarily from the Syrian Orthodox Church (also known as Antiochean Orthodox), called 'Jacobites' by outsiders. The largest group, the Chaldeans, are descendants of 'Nestorians' who converted to Roman Catholicism some time between the 1500s and the mid or late 1800s. There have been Assyrians in the Ninevah Province, around Mosul, since the earliest recorded times, though the language they spoke (and wrote) then was what we now call Akkadian.

So, if we want to see this group driven from its homeland, then we ought to proceed with a three-part division which leaves them at the mercy of those who hate or despise them. On the other hand, a four-part division, which gives them the Mosul Plains and those other areas of northern Iraq which are primarily Assyrian (or Chaldean/Assyrian), and also empowers them to hold their land against Kurdish incursions, might be beneficial.

Be Well,
Bob Griffin

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