Resort to ‘Soft-Partition’ Repair in Iraq?

Edward P. Joseph and
Edward P. Joseph Visiting Scholar and Professorial Lecturer, Johns Hopkins University
Michael E. O’Hanlon

January 8, 2007

As the nation and world await President Bush’s speech on what could be his last chance to get Iraq policy right, it is time to face the reality that a multiethnic, integrated, democratic Iraq is probably no longer attainable. The sectarian-based responses to Saddam’s execution are only the latest proof of this fact.

Proposals for a U.S. troop surge, more American trainers in Iraqi army and police forces, and a reinvigorated economic recovery package including a job creation program all have serious arguments in their defense. But at a time when nearly 5,000 people are dying and 100,000 Iraqis are being driven from their homes each month, it is also time to develop a backup plan for ending the civil war that we have proven unable to prevent.

Many have already concluded our backup plan for Iraq should be packing up and going home — or, at most, redeploying to Iraq’s borders to protect displaced civilians and deter its neighbors from entering into the civil war. But there is at least one promising Plan B that, while hardly ideal, would be far better for America, Iraq, and the broader region than complete defeat, all-out civil war, and the possibility of broader regional conflict. It would build on Sen. Joe Biden and former Assistant Secretary Leslie Gelb’s idea of a soft partitioning of Iraq — moving away from centralization toward a loose federation (akin to Bosnia) of three largely autonomous regions in which present and future oil revenues would be shared equitably. But it would go beyond Biden/Gelb to confront directly the sectarian strife now raging in and around Baghdad. Rather than striving for a “neutral Baghdad” as Mr. Biden and Mr. Gelb propose, the Iraqi government would assist threatened minorities relocate to where they feel safer — helping them find new jobs and housing in the process.

This is in effect the Bosnia model for Iraq. Bosnia’s war ended only after as many as 200,000 died, and half the country’s population had either been expelled or fled, leaving the country a patchwork of ethnically pure pieces. NATO air power, a reinforced U.N. contingent, and strengthened Muslim and Croat armies were critical elements leading to peace. But the Dayton accords of 1995 were centered on the fact ethnic relocations had occurred, creating definable and mostly defensible territories. At that point of ethnic consolidation, it was possible to negotiate and then implement land swaps among Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, creating a map and federal structure that a decade later is still tolerated by key parties.

In a rapidly disintegrating Iraq, our goal should be similarly to create militarily defensible subregions, while attenuating the violence. That way, a unitary state could be preserved — to share oil revenue equitably, conduct foreign policy, maintain some limited national institutions, and hold out the hope of a more cohesive Iraq in the future. Ethnic relocation is distasteful and not free from risk, but if carried out with care as government policy, it can occur with less trauma than in the Balkans.

In effect, Iraq is already becoming Bosnia. As noted, according to statistics from the UNHCR and Brookings-Bern project on the internally displaced, perhaps 100,000 more Iraqis are forcibly driven from their homes each month. About half wind up abroad, the other half displaced within Iraq. And the displacement increasingly takes on a Balkanlike, territorial logic. Sunni clerics now assert that the Shia are trying to establish a “Sunni-free corridor across northern Baghdad.” In other words, ethnic displacement is no longer solely the province of criminals and renegades like Muqtada al-Sadr, but has become policy.

Our choice is no longer whether we want ethnic relocation in Iraq or not. The choice is fast becoming whether we want to manage the process humanely and in a way that leads to stability, or allow ethnic killing and cleansing to reach their logical, terrible conclusion.

To be sure, facilitating ethnic relocation can also encourage it. A few small acts of violence against minorities in a given neighborhood, and they will be more apt to quickly relocate, knowing protection and a new home and job await somewhere else in the country. This could in turn encourage those few small acts of violence on the part of local majorities wishing to consolidate their ethnic group’s control of a given region. But ethnic cleansing is already a full-blown reality in Iraq; at some point, one needs to address it rather than pretend it has not yet become a huge problem.

Obtaining agreement in Iraq will require not only limited rapprochement among some Sunni and Shi’ite leaders, but a constructive role by the Kurds who are already ensconced in relative security in their own compact territory. Kurds see the oil rich, multiethnic town of Kirkuk as both the capital of their longed-for state and a symbol of their oppression at the hands of Saddam (who engineered mass Sunni migration to Kirkuk while expelling Kurds.)

Tens of thousands of Kurds have returned to Kirkuk already, heightening tensions. The International Organization for Migration has detailed the serious lack of basic services and opportunities for displaced persons, only serving to aggravate tensions.

The upsurge in sectarian warfare has emboldened the Kurds and their backers to advance the partition-independence agenda. U.S. pressure on the Kurds (whose territory has been used as a base for Kurdish separatists in Turkey) could encourage them to cut a deal on Kirkuk’s oil while earning greater Sunni cooperation on property swaps in the town. And such progress on ethnic movements in a place like Kirkuk could set the basis for more ambitious land swaps similar to those on Sarajevo and Western Bosnia that were a crucial component in attaining peace for Bosnia.

With U.S. assistance, the international community and Iraqi government would offer new houses and jobs to those who wished to move voluntarily, as well as protection for them as they left home and packed up to a different region. 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 swapping program. Already there are examples of Iraqis trading houses on their own. With safeguards for security, the Iraqi government could form property commissions — as have already been created in Kirkuk — to facilitate matches and avoid swindles.

We must not wait for slaughter in Iraq to reach the exhaustion point before finally confronting the reality of mass ethnic movements. Facilitating ethnic movement is not risk free. But it may soon become the only option before condemning Iraq to years of Bosnia-like fratricidal violence. If the president does not have this idea in his January speech, it is time he and his advisers start laying the groundwork with Iraqis for serious consideration of the idea in the coming months. If we want to control the ethnic relocation process rather than let genocidal hatred drive it, we may not have much more time.