Friday, December 08, 2006

Peter Galbraith--Partitioning Iraq

The Sunday Times - Review

The Sunday Times July 16, 2006

Iraq’s salvation lies in letting it break apart
The partition of Iraq into separate Kurdish, Sunni and Shi’ite areas is the only route to peace, writes Peter Galbraith
As horrific sectarian fighting unfolded early this year after the bombing of the Askariya shrine in Samarra, I was staying in the Baghdad headquarters of Kurdistan’s president, Massoud Barzani, putting the finishing touches to my book on the future of Iraq.

Because of the headquarters’ central location in the fortified green zone, Iraq’s leaders gathered there to discuss the crisis. It was clear they saw it as a civil war.

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As if to underline the point, three 9ft Katyusha rockets landed in close proximity to Barzani’s house while I was writing. Fortunately, the closest one — some 20 yards from me — was a dud.

The daily body count in Baghdad then was averaging 40, with many corpses found with eyes gouged out, flesh drilled and other marks of beastly torture. By last week it had risen to 60.

There is no good solution to the mess in Iraq. The country has broken up. The United States cannot put it back together again and cannot stop the civil war.

The conventional wisdom holds that Iraq’s break-up would be destabilising and should be avoided at all costs. Looking at Iraq’s dismal history since Britain cobbled it together from three Ottoman provinces at the end of the first world war, it should be apparent that it is the effort to hold Iraq together that has been destabilising.

Pursuit of a coerced unity under Sunni-Arab domination — from the first British-installed king to the end of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship in 2003 — has led to endless violence, repression and genocide.

I do not believe it is possible in the long run to force people living in a geographically defined area to remain part of a state against their will. Certainly Iraq’s Kurds will never reconcile themselves to being part of Iraq. Under these circumstances I believe that a managed amicable divorce is in the best interests of the peoples of Iraq and will hasten American and British withdrawal.

At the beginning of this year the Bush administration invested heavily in diplomatic efforts aimed at forming a national unity government that included the Shi’ites, Kurds, Sunni Arabs and secularists. It took until late April to agree on a prime minister, president, two vice-presidents and the speaker of the parliament. Because of its internal tensions, the government is not likely to function very well. Even if it does, what will it govern?

Not Kurdistan: the regional government insists on its constitutional authority to run its region. Baghdad ministries are not allowed to open offices there.

Not the Shi’ite south: it is run by a patchwork of municipal and governorate officials who front for the clerics, religious parties and militias that are the real power in the region.

Not the Sunni-Arab heartland: it is a battleground. The American military, assisted by Shi’ite troops, are at war with insurgents and foreign terrorists. Many Sunni Arabs despise both sides of this battle, but it does not mean that they will accept the authority of a Shi’ite-led national government which they see as installed by the Americans and aligned with Iran.

Not Baghdad, at least outside the green zone: Iraq’s capital is a city of armed camps. Wealthy Iraqis maintain private armies for security. Although most of Iraq’s ministries are outside the green zone, many ministers live inside it. Most rarely go to their offices and spend their days visiting colleagues in the zone. There is much talk at the highest levels of Iraq’s government — but little government.

The situation should be blindingly obvious to the top US officials who visit. After three years of occupation they cannot leave the green zone or even move within the zone without a security detail the size of a small army.

Even when America and Britain had full legal authority in Iraq in 2003 and 2004, they did nothing to arrest the break-up of the country.

In the south they allowed the Shi’ite clergy and religious parties to take power and to build their Islamic states. While saying that Kurdistan should rejoin Iraq, America did nothing to reduce any part of Kurdistan’s autonomy. While outlawing armed forces that were not part of the Iraqi army, the coalition allowed militias to proliferate.

If the coalition could not prevent Iraq’s unravelling when it was fully in charge of the country, it is illogical now to put all the emphasis on building strong national institutions, such as a single Iraqi army and powerful central government, when American influence is much diminished.

How could a divorce be carried through? Arab Iraqi leaders have told me privately that they accept Kurdistan’s right to self-determination. Some seem to prefer that Kurdistan should leave, having grown weary of its refusal to make any concessions to a shared state. With settled borders, the split between Kurdistan and Arab Iraq could be more like Czechoslovakia’s velvet divorce than Yugoslavia’s wars.

Turkey — with many Kurds living within its borders — has long been considered the chief obstacle to Kurdish dreams for an independent state. Turkish attitudes have evolved significantly, however. Some Turkish strategic thinkers, including those within the so-called “deep state” comprising the military and intelligence establishments, see a secular, pro-western and non-Arab Kurdistan as a buffer to an Islamic Arab state to the south.

If the Shi’ite south forms a region, it can set up a theocratic government and establish a regional guard. Iran will be the dominant power and the Bush administration has no ability, and no intention, of countering Iran’s position there.

These are not welcome developments but they need not be catastrophic. For the United States and the world’s Shi’ites (including the Iranians) have a common interest in defeating Al-Qaeda and its kindred Sunni fundamentalist movements.

Certainly Iraq’s Shi’ites would line up against the United States in the event of an American confrontation with Iran. But America could have good relations with a southern Iraqi Shi’ite theocracy that did not share the tortured US relationship with Iran but came to power through a democratic process that coalition troops made possible. And an elected regional government — with a regional guard responsible to it — would certainly be preferable to the current ad hoc system of informal Islamic rule enforced by sometimes competing militias.

Even a theocratic government can provide the political and economic stability needed to permit new investment in the south’s vast oil reserves. By providing technical assistance to a southern government, America and its coalition partners may have some influence on internal developments.

The continued presence of American and British military forces in Iraq’s south can only aggravate relations with the Shi’ite authorities without any corresponding gain in what is a relatively secure part of Iraq. Last year British troops clashed on several occasions with local police and militias. One incident — where British forces attacked a police station to rescue two British special forces troops who had been arrested while working undercover — nearly escalated out of control.

As long as the coalition remains in the south there is a risk of more incidents. Troops should be withdrawn in a rapid but orderly fashion.

What about the Sunni-Arab heartland? Here America faces a dilemma. The US military presence among hostile Sunni Arabs seems to generate an endless supply of new suicide bombers and insurgent fighters. If America withdraws from the Sunni heartland, even more territory may fall into the hands of insurgents and terrorists.

The pogroms after the destruction of the Askariya shrine served as a wake-up call to many Sunni Arabs. In a Sunni-Shi’ite civil war, Sunni Arabs realise they will lose. They may come to see the formation of a region as essential for self-protection and therefore be less worried that federalism will lead to the dissolution of Iraq.

If the Sunnis establish a regional guard, it could take over security responsibilities from the Americans and the Shi’ite-dominated Iraqi army. America could withdraw, making it clear that US forces would return only if the regional authorities allowed Al-Qaeda and other anti-western terrorists to operate freely from the region.

It will need to keep a force nearby, ready to intervene. Kurdistan is the ideal location. It is close, the local population are friendly and it is at present still in Iraq.

Even if the Sunni Arabs do not form a region, the United States should still withdraw and leave security duties to the Iraqi army, which would presumably continue to use Shi’ite forces there.

In sum: partition works as a political solution for Kurdistan, the Shi’ite south and the Sunni Arab centre because it formalises what has already taken place. By contrast, the American effort to build a unified state with a non-sectarian, non-ethnic police and army has not produced that result nor made much progress towards it.

There is one remaining problem. Partition is a way to get most coalition forces out of Iraq quickly. It does not solve the problem of Baghdad, however.

Theoretically, the United States has the power to provide some level of security in Baghdad. This would require many more troops and result in many more casualties. And it might not work. It is hard to imagine that there is any support for this role in America.

The alternative is to recognise that there is not much that America is able and willing to do to stop the bloodshed in Baghdad. Once they get started, modern civil wars develop a momentum of their own. In Baghdad and other mixed Sunni-Shi’ite areas, America cannot contribute to the solution because there is no solution, at least not in the foreseeable future.

It is a tragedy and it is unsatisfying to admit that there is little that can be done about it. But it is so. No purpose is served by a prolonged American presence anywhere in Arab Iraq.

© Peter W Galbraith 2006

Extracted from The End of Iraq by Peter W Galbraith, published by Simon & Schuster tomorrow at £17.99. Copies can be ordered for £16.19 including postage from The Sunday Times BooksFirst on 0870 165 8585. Peter Galbraith is a former US ambassador with a long involvement in policy on Iraq

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