Skip to main content

Voluntary Ethnic Relocation in Iraq?

Originally published with the title: Break Up Iraq To Save It

With the Iraq mission on the brink of outright failure, some analysts are contemplating a “Plan B” – pulling out and trying to prevent the war from spreading to other countries. But rather than accept complete disaster, outright civil war and the likelihood of genocide, we should try to develop a strategy for achieving some minimal level of stability, even if it requires discarding our loftier aims for 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.

Obviously, this idea would only work if Iraq’s government, through a strong consensus of its Sunni Arabs, Shiites and Kurds, endorsed it. Most Iraqis, in fact, still say they want an integrated country, but if the civil war gets much worse, that option may no longer exist. In that case, reluctant Sunnis could be persuaded if it was made clear that the confederal governing body would distribute all Iraqi oil revenue equitably on a per capita basis, not by geography. Former Baathists, up to a certain rank in the party, also should be quickly “rehabilitated” and allowed to hold jobs and run for office.

For Americans who cherish the notion of multiethnic democracy, actively facilitating voluntary ethnic segregation would be a tough pill to swallow. Some might even go so far as to claim it unethical, making a mockery of the moral purpose we claimed to be furthering when we liberated Iraq from Saddam Hussein’s cruel rule.

But what would truly mock our initial goals would be outright defeat followed by genocide – perhaps similar to what happened in Bosnia in the early 1990s. There, 200,000 people died; in Iraq, which has five times the population, the death toll could be much worse.

Although we should generally favor and support multiethnic democracy, it is not our most important objective – especially not in today’s Iraq, where it may no longer even be achievable. For people trying to cope with the country’s daily perils, staying alive is a higher priority than living in a diverse neighborhood.

This proposal shares many elements with those that have favored the partitioning of Iraq. But partitionists have never explained how we would get to their preferred solution without massive and violent ethnic cleansing. Confederacy, along with safe passage, property swapping, job-creation programs and oil revenue sharing, provides at least a plausible path forward while in fact avoiding formal partition and holding out hope that the country could someday regain its cohesiveness.

The Bosnia experience is again instructive. We declared a victory of sorts there in 1995, even though a previously diverse society was ultimately divided into three ethnically homogenous pieces through a terribly violent war.

Iraq still has a chance to turn out better, even if our current strategy fails. If we can encourage future ethnic relocation to occur voluntarily and peacefully, rather than through murder, rape and intimidation, we can still salvage an imperfect but real success that ultimately leaves most Iraqis better off than they were under Hussein. And in contrast to Bosnia, where land swaps occurred only after the civil war had largely run its course, Iraq might use such a policy to nip a broader war in the bud.

To move in this direction, no one need immediately decide that Iraq will heretofore be a land of three or four major segregated populations. Rather, individuals can decide themselves where they feel most secure. To the extent that many take up the offer of government help in relocating, the program could be expanded. Much of the resettlement is likely to be within Baghdad, with many Sunnis relocating to neighborhoods west of the Tigris River while Shiites head east.

Radical solutions far different – and far more promising – than “stay the course” need to be designed now. “Give up hope” is not one of them.

Get daily updates from Brookings