Most Iraqis wish their country to remain unified.*
12 March 2007 -- The Christian Science Monitor
By Joost Hiltermann
[Joost Hiltermann is deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa
program of the International Crisis Group. He is based in Amman, Jordan.]
In the escalating debate over the US role in Iraq, the latest panacea on
offer is an option called "soft partition." However, like "hard" partition
(Iraq's breakup) and a military surge, this proposal will fail in its goal
to create a new and stable modus vivendi in Iraq.
Soft partition prescribes a weak Iraqi central government; three or four
strong regional governments; and the physical separation, with US help, of
Iraq's three major ethnic and religious groups: Kurds, Shiites, and Sunni
Arabs. They each would receive a proportionate share of royalties from oil
sales. Thus Sunni Arabs, most of whom are residents of oil-poor regions,
would still be guaranteed 20 percent of oil income, since they make up
about 20 percent of Iraq's population.
Soft-partition proponents argue that a loose federation along these lines
reflects reality - that Iraq cannot be kept together as a central state,
given the hostility among groups and their attempts at sectarian
cleansing. And, say advocates, the proposal is not an American imposition
but an Iraqi idea enshrined in the new Constitution.
But the concept of soft partition misreads Iraqi realities. Despite
sectarian cleansing attempts, Iraqis remain deeply intermingled and
intermarried in a mosaic that could be changed only through campaigns of
intimidation and mass murder.
Moreover, in poll after poll, a majority of Iraqis has indicated that they
wish the country to remain unified. For example, the International
Republican Institute reported in July 2006 that 66 percent of Iraqis
opposed segregation by ethnicity or sect.
Soft partition advocates counter that the country's new Constitution,
which allows for the type of loose federalism that they support, was
adopted by a convincing majority in a 2005 referendum. While true, this
claim is undermined by the fact that Iraqis voted for the Constitution as
a whole, not its individual provisions. And Iraqis were encouraged to
endorse it not only by political parties but, in the case of the Shiites,
their most senior religious leaders.
The constitutional language on federalism and revenue sharing, in
particular, reflected a backroom deal between the Kurdish alliance and
only one of the Shiite parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic
Republic in Iraq (SCIRI), which reached the final compromise at the
exclusion of all other parties and Iraqi society.
There is no question that the Kurds desire independence, and they can make
a strong case that they are entitled to it. As realists, however, their
leaders have agreed to remain a part of Iraq for now.
The Kurdish parties are using their relative political strength to
maximize their future opportunities for secession. The Kurds' separation
into an autonomous region with extensive powers should not be problematic,
unless they fail to compromise on control over the historically mixed
region of Kirkuk, which holds 12 percent of Iraq's proven oil reserves.
SCIRI's case is different. Despite the political power it enjoys because
of its Iran-supported militia, the party lacks support among Shiites. To
compensate, SCIRI began peddling a novel idea as the Constitution was
being drafted: creation of a Shiite "superregion" covering Iraq's nine
southern governorates, which together account for 70 to 80 percent of
proven oil reserves. It is this notion, inserted into the Constitution,
that helped inflame sectarian debate. It also proved divisive among
Shiites. Most members of the Shiite alliance have rejected the idea, even
as they support some degree of power decentralization.
Iraq's Sunni Arabs are just as divided, but they agree on one thing: They
reject a federal scheme that would give them an unenforceable guarantee of
oil revenues while cutting them from power. While they have no interest in
a return to a strong central state (this time controlled by Shiites), they
abhor SCIRI's brand of federalism.
A workable compromise might be an asymmetric federalism that accepts a
Kurdish region with significant autonomous powers and that devolves a
lesser degree of power from the central state to the remaining 15
governorates of "Arab" Iraq. That way, no powerful regional government
would monopolize oil revenues or be able to ignore a Constitutional
guarantee on oil-revenue sharing. Nor would a central state be so strong
that an authoritarian leader could turn it into another tyranny.
To reach such a compromise, the Bush administration would have to do
something it has long resisted: It should pursue a forceful multilateral
approach to press Iraqis across the political spectrum to forge a true
national compact - the kind of overall compromise that the Constitution,
in its sectarianism, failed to deliver. The alternative to compromise will
not be a loose federation of Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite entities, as
advocates of soft partition claim; rather, it will be the chaos of a
failed state that could fall prey to its more powerful neighbors.