Why Breaking up Iraq is a Very, Very Bad Idea
Leslie H. Gelb, president emeritus of the Council for Foreign Affairs and a former NYT editor and columnist, argues in today’s NYT that the US should reconcile itself to Iraq splitting into three countries. I don’t entirely understand why he is pushing this agenda, and can’t see anyone it would help, but the idea is frankly dangerous. All we need is to have the Iraqi nationalists convinced we intend to break up their country. That will produce more blown-up US troops, God forbid.
Here are the reasons this is a bad idea.
The splitting up of Iraq into three countries would be unacceptable to all the neighbors. Turkish officials have repeatedly said that they would go to war to prevent the emergence of an independent Kurdish state, so Mr. Gelb’s suggestion seems likely to cause quite a lot of trouble. Saudi Arabia’s oil is in a traditionally Shiite area, al-Hasa, and Riyadh is extremely nervous about the possibility of the emergence of an Arab Shiite state in south Iraq, to which the Ahsa’is may well wish to accede, leaving Saudi Arabia penniless. Even Iranian Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei has warned against those plotting to break up Iraq. These three neighboring states are sufficiently powerful to stop any move toward a break-up of Iraq, and all have signalled that they would do so, by force if necessary. Mr. Gelb, we’d like to have fewer wars in the region, not more, please.
Moreover, I do not know of any significant social or political force in Iraq that wants the country broken up into three independent states. The Shiite parties mostly descend from al-Da`wa al-Islamiyah (The Islamic Call), which has had a subtext of Iraqi nationalism since its founding around 1958. In the 1960s and 1970s, it is said that up to ten percent of al-Da`wa members were Sunni. In 1995, al-Da`wa broke with Ahmad Chalabi’s INC precisely because Chalabi acceded to Kurdish plans for a loose federation, whereas al-Da`wa wants a strong central Iraqi state (run by Shiites according to Islamic law). The way in which the Shiite Arabs reached out to the Turcoman Shiites recently shows the sort of national linkages that are emerging (even though the Turcoman would be considered ghulat or theological extremists by mainstream Twelver Arabs).
Although Iraqi Kurds may want loose federalism, they know that independence would provoke Turkish intervention. Moreover, independence is not all it is cracked up to be. Ask the Slovaks, who are sinking into agrarian poverty while Prague gets back on its feet. My understanding is that the Kirkuk oil fields may well be depleted soon, and the future of Iraqi petroleum production lies in the south. If that is true, for the Iraqi Kurds to secede into a landlocked declining economy would be political and economic suicide.
Likewise, the Sunni Arab triangle is simply not a viable state (and would lack petroleum income). Basically, people in Falluja and Ramadi would be seceding to become a second Jordan, only smaller and poorer.
Iraqi nationalism has won. It is likely that both internal and external actors will work to keep the country together. The Middle East suffers from having small countries imposed by Western colonialism, such that the petroleum wealth is in tiny principalities and the human capital in huge but poor countries like Egypt. The region doesn’t need any more small poor countries with populations of 4 million each.
The alternative is to build into the new Iraq guarantees against a tyranny of the Shiite majority. Have a bicameral legislature that over-represents the Sunnis slightly. Have a bill of rights. Have elected provincial governors and legislatures with their own local purview that the central state cannot over-rule, and make them key to any amendments to the constitution. In other words, learn something from a success story: the US constitution.