Robert G. Rabil: Why Breaking Up Iraq Would Be an Awful Idea

Roundup: Historians' Take

Robert G. Rabil, in the Daily Star (Oct. 16, 2004):

[Robert G. Rabil is a visiting professor of Middle East studies at Florida Atlantic University and the author of "Embattled Neighbors: Syria, Israel and Lebanon."]

With Iraq at the center of the U.S. presidential election, the ongoing debate over how to pacify the country is reaching fever pitch in Washington.

Two parallel ideas are gaining traction. One is that Iraq be broken up into three states. The votaries of this argument believe that the U.S. has made a fundamental flaw in committing itself to a unified Iraq, which was artificially created from three former provinces of the Ottoman Empire and is populated by distinct ethnic and sectarian communities. Writing in The New York Times last November, Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations and one of those advancing the idea, suggested that the only viable strategy "may be to correct the historical defect and move in stages toward a three-state solution: Kurds in the north, Sunnis in the center and Shiites in t he south."

The second idea holds that the U.S. must seek an early withdrawal from Iraq so that Iraqis can, essentially, fight their future out. Writing in in September, Middle East scholar Barry Rubin emphasized: "The American presence is preventing an all-out civil war by staying in Iraq but it is also sustaining a different kind of civil war. And it is only the post-American civil war that will settle the country's future." Rubin asserted that U.S. forces stood in the way of the main Iraqi political forces that wanted to wipe out terrorist groups and take over the country for themselves. He added that these forces had no interest in supporting the interim Iraqi government, which could not eliminate the terrorists, but also kept them out of power.

Both these strategies are dangerous and, if implemented, would have serious implications for the Middle East in general and Iraq in particular. There are four main reasons for this.

First, most of the states in the Middle East were artificially created. The various conflicts in which they have been involved over the decades have highlighted the diverse nature of the region. However, paradoxically, these very conflicts also hardened the artificial lines drawn up by the colonial powers. When Iraq and Iran went to war in 1980, the Iraqis thought that the large Arab population of the Iranian province of Khuzistan would support them. The Iranians, in turn, hoped that Shiites in Iraq would identify with the Islamic Republic. As it turned out, Arab Iranian s and Shiite Iraqis remained loyal to their respective countries.

Similarly, during the height of the civil war in Lebanon, when the support of regional powers for key communal factions threatened to unravel the fabric of the Lebanese state, most Christians and Muslims insisted on maintaining Lebanon's unity. And during the first and second Gulf wars, Iraq's Kurdish political leadership aspired more toward autonomy than to outright independence.

Despite their artificial make-up, Middle Eastern nations have become the focus of political identification by their peoples, partly because the historical evolution of the Middle East has created a complex matrix of identities. Consider that historical Kurdistan sits atop historical Assyria, and that the national myth of Kurdistan for a Kurd is no less strong than that of Assyria for an Assyrian. The two, however, can identify themselves as Kurdish-Iraqi and Assyrian-Iraqi. This is partly why a federal Iraq remains the best solution for integrating Iraq's communities. After all, communal conflicts in Iraq have been pol itical.

Second, Iraq's ethnic and sectarian communities are not confined to their respective provinces. Significant numbers of Shiites and Kurds live in Baghdad. Christians live in Mosul. Turkmens and Arabs live in Kirkuk. Arab Sunnis live in Basra. The creation of Sunni, Kurdish and Shiite states would merely exacerbate ethnic and sectarian conflicts and plunge Iraq into a drawn-out civil war.

Third, the three-state solution will go against a trend in globalization that seeks to reduce national boundaries. The partition solution in Iraq puts the cart of separation before the horse of federation. What's more, one can expect Turkish, Iranian and Arab apprehension of and opposition to a divided Iraq, at a time when the region has no structural framework to vitiate against efforts to advance cross-border national interests. In other words, partition would probably ensure that Iraq's neighbors interfere it its affairs, perhaps militarily.

Finally, given that a majority in Iraq is Shiite, while most insurgents are Sunni, allowing a civil war, as Rubin suggests, would inadvertently lead to partition of the country, belying his premises for allowing a civil war to take place. Contrary to what Rubin wrote, the main political forces in Iraq are either members of the interim government, or are working with it to hold elections in January in order to confer legitimacy upon a new government. Recently, Ayatollah Ali Sistani issued a fatwa "requiring believers to register to vote." It is this combination of legitimacy and fair Shiite representation that will decide Iraq's future. A legitimate government, buttressed by political support and a communal consensus, will destroy the terrorists far more effectively than allowing a breakdown of Iraq. And this process requires the supervision and backing of American troops.

What the Middle East does need is a long-term strategy to bring stability, peace and democratic principles to the peoples of the region, while at the same time helping incorporate the region into the world order. Ultimately, even if this is in the distant future, the ideal plan is to work for a federal Iraq as part of a larger federal United States of the Middle East.

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