Divide Iraq into three
Leslie H. Gelb NYT
Wednesday, November 26, 2003
Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds
NEW YORK President George W. Bush's new strategy of transferring
power quickly to Iraqis, and his critics' alternatives,
share a fundamental flaw: All commit the United States to
a unified Iraq, artificially and fatefully made whole from
three distinct ethnic and sectarian communities. That has
been possible in the past only by the application of overwhelming
and brutal force.
Bush wants to hold Iraq together by conducting democratic
elections countrywide. But by his daily reassurances to
the contrary, he only fans devastating rumors of an American
Meanwhile, influential senators have called for more and
better American troops to defeat the insurgency. Yet neither
the White House nor Congress is likely to approve sending
And then there is the plea, mostly from outside the U.S.
government, to internationalize the occupation of Iraq.
The moment for multilateralism, however, may already have
passed. Even the United Nations shudders at such a nightmarish
The only viable strategy, then, 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
Almost immediately, this would allow America to put most
of its money and troops where they would do the most good
quickly - with the Kurds and Shiites. The United States
could extricate most of its forces from the so-called Sunni
Triangle, north and west of Baghdad, largely freeing American
forces from fighting a costly war they might not win.
American officials could then wait for the troublesome
and domineering Sunnis, without oil or oil revenues, to
moderate their ambitions or suffer the consequences.
This three-state solution has been unthinkable in Washington
for decades. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, a united
Iraq was thought necessary to counter an anti-American Iran.
Since the Gulf War in 1991, a whole Iraq was deemed essential
to preventing neighbors like Turkey, Syria and Iran from
picking at the pieces and igniting wider wars.
But times have changed. The Kurds have largely been autonomous
for years, and Ankara has lived with that. So long as the
Kurds don't move precipitously toward statehood or incite
insurgencies in Turkey or Iran, these neighbors will accept
their autonomy. It is true that a Shiite self-governing
region could become a theocratic state or fall into an Iranian
embrace. But for now, neither possibility seems likely.
There is a hopeful precedent for a three-state strategy:
Yugoslavia after World War II. In 1946, Marshal Tito pulled
together highly disparate ethnic groups into a united Yugoslavia.
A Croat himself, he ruled the country from Belgrade among
the majority and historically dominant Serbs. Through clever
politics and personality, Tito kept the peace peacefully.
When Tito died in 1980, several parts of Yugoslavia quickly
declared their independence. The Serbs, with superior armed
forces and the arrogance of traditional rulers, struck brutally
against Bosnian Muslims and Croats.
Europeans and Americans protested but - stunningly and
unforgivably - did little at first to prevent the violence.
Eventually they gave the Bosnian Muslims and Croats the
means to fight back, and the Serbs accepted separation.
Later, when Albanians in the Serbian province of Kosovo
rebelled against their cruel masters, the United States
and Europe had to intervene again. The result there will
be either autonomy or statehood for Kosovo.
The lesson is obvious: Overwhelming force was the best
chance for keeping Yugoslavia whole, and even that failed
in the end. Meantime, the costs of preventing the natural
states from emerging had been terrible.
The ancestors of today's Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds have
been in Mesopotamia since before modern history. The Shiites
there, unlike Shiites elsewhere in the Arab world, are a
majority. The Sunnis of the region gravitate toward pan-Arabism.
The non-Arab Kurds speak their own language and have always
fed their own nationalism.
The Ottomans ruled all the peoples of this land as they
were: separately. In 1921, Winston Churchill cobbled the
three parts together for oil's sake under a monarch backed
by British armed forces. The Baathist Party took over in
the 1960's, with Saddam Hussein consolidating its control
in 1979, maintaining unity through terror and with occasional
Today, the Sunnis have a far greater stake in a united
Iraq than either the Kurds or the Shiites. Central Iraq
is largely without oil, and without oil revenues, the Sunnis
would soon become poor cousins.
The Shiites might like a united Iraq if they controlled
it - which they could if those elections Bush keeps promising
ever occur. But the Kurds and Sunnis are unlikely to accept
Shiite control, no matter how democratically achieved. The
Kurds have the least interest in any strong central authority,
which has never been good for them.
A strategy of breaking up Iraq and moving toward a three-state
solution would build on these realities. The general idea
is to strengthen the Kurds and Shiites and weaken the Sunnis,
then wait and see whether to stop at autonomy or encourage
The first step would be to make the north and south into
self-governing regions, with boundaries drawn as closely
as possible along ethnic lines. Give the Kurds and Shiites
the bulk of the billions of dollars voted by Congress for
reconstruction. In return, require democratic elections
within each region, and protections for women, minorities
and the news media.
Second and at the same time, draw down American troops
in the Sunni Triangle and ask the United Nations to oversee
the transition to self-government there. This might take
six to nine months; without power and money, the Sunnis
may cause trouble.
For example, they might punish the substantial minorities
left in the center, particularly the large Kurdish and Shiite
populations in Baghdad. These minorities must have the time
and the wherewithal to organize and make their deals, or
go either north or south. This would be a messy and dangerous
enterprise, but the United States would and should pay for
the population movements and protect the process with force.
The Sunnis could also ignite insurgencies in the Kurdish
and Shiite regions. To counter this, the United States would
already have redeployed most of its troops north and south
of the Sunni Triangle, where they could help arm and train
the Kurds and Shiites, if asked.
The third part of the strategy would revolve around regional
diplomacy. All the parties would suspect the worst of one
another - not without reason. They would all need assurances
about security. And if the three self-governing regions
were to be given statehood, it should be done only with
the consent of their neighbors.
The Sunnis might surprise and behave well, thus making
possible a single and loose confederation. Or maybe they
would all have to live with simple autonomy, much as Taiwan
does with respect to China.
For decades, the United States has worshiped at the altar
of a unified yet unnatural Iraqi state. Allowing all three
communities within that false state to emerge at least as
self-governing regions would be both difficult and dangerous.
Washington would have to be very hard-headed, and hard-hearted,
to engineer this breakup.
But such a course is manageable, even necessary, because
it would allow us to find Iraq's future in its denied but
The writer, a former editor and columnist for The New York
Times, is president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.
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