Dividing Iraq to Save It*
By David Ignatius
Thursday, October 4, 2007; A25
During the recent debate in Washington about what is gently termed the
"soft partition" of Iraq
have been remembering one of the macabre signature phrases of the
War: "It was necessary to destroy the town in order to save it."
I know the senators who endorsed Sen. Joe Biden
plan to devolve power in a more federal Iraq don't mean to destroy the
country. They want to save it. But like the unidentified U.S. Army
officer who was quoted in 1968 after the destruction of a village called
Ben Tre, they are cloaking expediency in the rhetoric of salvation.
Iraq may indeed separate into three semi-autonomous cantons -- Sunni,
Shiite and Kurdish -- as Biden and others recommend. Looking at the
sectarian strife plaguing the country, that often seems like an
inevitable outcome. But this act of national dismemberment is not
something that Americans should recommend. No matter how much blood and
treasure we have spent in Iraq, we remain outsiders there. It's not our
The passage of the Biden resolution on Sept. 26 has already had one good
consequence: It has made Iraqis angry and brought a rare moment of
unity. Many of the leading Arab political parties in Iraq signed a joint
statement denouncing what they called "the proposal for the U.S.
government to adopt a policy to divide Iraq." The statement allied the
backers of radical Shiite Moqtada al-Sadr
with those of secular Shiite Ayad Allawi
-- now there's progress! Absent were only the Kurdish parties, which
want as much autonomy as possible from an Arab Iraq, and the Supreme
Islamic Iraqi Council
(formerly known as SCIRI), which wants a Shiite ministate in the south.
Biden has been scrambling to clarify
that he doesn't want the dissolution of the Iraqi state but more of the
federalism that's in the new Iraqi constitution. And to be fair to
Biden, he is one of the few political figures in either party who have
tried to think of creative alternatives to the Bush administration's
failing policy. But he has now encountered strong pushback from Iraqis,
and he should understand better than most that this is a welcome
development. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad wisely stressed that the Senate
resolution was nonbinding and didn't represent official U.S. policy.
"Don't be afraid of Iraqi sovereignty, even when it's expressed in ways
you don't like." Gen. John Abizaid
the former head of U.S. Central Command
used to make that point to his commanders on every stop in the war zone.
And that's the right prism for viewing the partition debate: When Iraqis
get angry at congressional resolutions to divide their country, that's
good; when they denounce trigger-happy Blackwater
security contractors, that's good. When they propose a formal
status-of-forces agreement limiting how and where U.S. forces will
operate in their country, that's good. They are exercising Iraqi
One of America's mistakes in Iraq has been an easy contempt for that
nation and its history. People often spoke of Iraq as an artificial
construct of British imperialism and suggested that things would go
better if, like the former Yugoslavia
it dissolved along its ethnic boundaries. Israeli analysts certainly
encouraged that view. I wrote 25 years ago about an enthusiastic
proposal by an Israeli academic in the journal Kivunim to dissolve Iraq
into three enclaves. But such analyses overlooked the surprisingly
durable Iraqi identity, which has persisted for centuries.
Historically, this was the land between two rivers, the Tigris and
Euphrates, a fertile crescent stretching from the mountains in the north
to the warm waters of the Persian Gulf
There was a land of Iraq in 539 B.C.
when the Persian emperor Cyrus captured Babylon
and proposed to make it his capital. In his book "Understanding Iraq,"
the historian William R. Polk reminds us the name actually comes from
the Persian "eragh," which means "the lowlands."
Certainly there was an Iraq in A.D. 680, when the prophet Muhammad's
grandson Hussein was lured to what is now Karbala
and was murdered. And that Iraqi Arab identity survived through the
Ottoman centuries, when this land was administered in the three
provinces that the British fused in 1920 to form the modern Iraq.
The Iraqis and their Arab neighbors will have a hard time forgiving
America for the human suffering that has accompanied the destruction of
regime. But if that story ends in the destruction of the Iraqi state, it
will open a wound that may not be healed a century from now. Iraqis may
ultimately decide they want a "soft partition." But until they do, we
should not be in the business of dismembering a state.
/The writer is co-host ofPostGlobal
of international issues. His e-mail address isd