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Last Train From Baghdad

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
July/August 2006
Foreign Affairs


Editor's note: The folowing is excerpted from "What to Do in Iraq: A Roundtable", Foreign Affairs (July/August 2006)

The United States' way forward and out of Iraq now comes down to a fatal choice between President George W. Bush's policy of simply staying the course even as security in Iraq slowly deteriorates and his critics' policy of quickly withdrawing U.S. forces even with civil war looming. The Bush approach looks like an attempt on Bush's part simply to avoid defeat and pass the tar baby on to his successor, Democrat or Republican. The alternative looks like a way to have the United States escape from a quagmire, whatever the consequences. Either way, Americans and Iraqis lose.

There is a third way: for the United States to stop its futile resistance to the inevitable sectarian tides now rolling over Iraq and help the Iraqis channel these forces into a viable political settlement -- uniting Iraq by decentralizing it. This deal would be driven into place by bringing the Sunnis in with an offer presenting them with prospects far better than any of their present ones and by promising U.S. troop withdrawals and redeployments before 2009, all backed up with regional diplomacy.

There are three parts to the Bush strategy in Iraq. First, the United States is putting its top priority on creating a government of national unity, with the expectation that doing so will help solve other political problems. But Iraq has had national unity governments for the past three years, the latest one inclusive enough to count seven Sunni ministers holding positions as important as the deputy prime ministership and the ministry of defense, and they have accomplished little on critical issues such as maintaining security and reducing corruption. It would be foolhardy to predict that the next such government will do much better. Second, Washington is planning to withdraw U.S. troops as Iraqis are trained to take over -- to "stand down as they stand up." But this policy gives Iraqis little incentive to fight their own battles. Third, and most devastating, although Bush persistently proclaims that he is still pursuing victory, his actions suggest that he is, instead, merely trying to avoid defeat.

According to a New York Times article in April, despite small signs of progress, a team of U.S. diplomats and military officers in Iraq described the situation early this year as serious or critical in more than a third of Iraq's provinces. Their report also found that sectarian militias still dominated Iraq's security forces and that rampant ethnic cleansing was taking place throughout the country -- all of which adds up to the start of de facto partition. Yet the Bush administration has decided to end further U.S. economic reconstruction aid after this year, even though the insurgents, as everyone knows, cannot be defeated without rebuilding Iraq. It also has slashed funds to develop democracy in Iraq. Finally, it has largely pulled U.S. troops off the streets of big cities, leaving the insurgents with greater control.

The result of this deteriorating situation and of Bush's pulling back on key programs will be a draining stalemate. Although the insurgency will grow, the insurgents will never prevail as long as U.S. troops remain in sufficient force, with, say, 30,000 troops. Any insurgent effort to hold large chunks of territory would fail against the United States' dominant firepower. Thus Bush will be able to avoid defeat in Iraq until he hands the problem over to the next president, in 2009. In the meantime, Iraq and the United States will stagger tragically through the next three years -- unless a totally frustrated Congress, supported by an increasingly disillusioned American public, decides that it has had enough of the quagmire and mandates an immediate withdrawal. But a quick U.S. exit from Iraq, however explainable by frustration, would only weaken U.S. national security and the war against terrorism.


It may be that the situation has reached the point where no strategy, no matter how clever on paper, can work. But to believe there is no choice save to follow Bush deeper into the quagmire would bespeak moral and strategic bankruptcy. There is, in fact, a way to keep Iraq whole and make it politically stable: rather than continue to tear the country apart with futile efforts at centralization, decentralize it. This strategy flows legally from Iraq's existing constitution and is consistent with both U.S. military thinking about orderly troop withdrawal and the desire of U.S. diplomats for a more active regional diplomacy. The United States, along with its friends and allies, can and should lead the Iraqis in this direction. Vital U.S. interests are involved as well as Iraqi ones. But the final decision must be the Iraqis', and Washington should not impose it on them. Helping decentralize Iraq is also more honorable and realistic than either hanging in there or getting out.

This policy has five elements. The first is to establish, consistent with the current constitution, three strong regions with a limited but effective central government in a federally united Iraq. Doing so would build the post-Saddam Hussein Iraq around Kurdish, Sunni Arab, and Shiite Arab regions, each largely responsible for its own legislation and administration. Each region's government could pass laws superseding those passed by the central government, as stated in the present constitution, except in areas of the central government's exclusive jurisdiction. The central government would have the deciding responsibility for foreign affairs, border defense, oil and gas production and revenues, and other countrywide matters, as agreed to by the regions. Its writ would be limited and restricted to areas of clear common interests, which would allow Baghdad to meet its responsibilities effectively. The oil provision, in particular, would strengthen the central government beyond its present powers. The underlying principle behind this policy would be to hold Iraq together by allowing each group to satisfy its real ethnic and religious aspirations.

Keeping Iraq united in this manner would be in the interest of all parties. Key oil pipelines run through the country, north to south, and Baghdad remains the only possible business hub for the country. Most Iraqis also share a powerful interest in seeing that their regions and their country do not get picked apart by greedy neighbors. Divided, Iraq would be an irresistible target for outside meddling; united, the country would stand a chance of survival. More and more leaders -- among the Kurds, the Shiites, and, increasingly, the Sunnis as well -- are favoring negotiated regionalism and moving toward a federal system over civil war. (The existing constitution provides for federalism by allowing provinces to unite with each other and form a regional government.) Nonetheless, Washington would have to play a pivotal role in helping the Iraqis secure this agreement.

Big cities with highly mixed sectarian populations, such as Baghdad, Kirkuk, and Mosul, pose a huge problem now and would continue to do so under a federal solution -- or any other solution. To fix this, the Iraqis will have to make special security arrangements, such as ensuring that the police forces in these cities are composed of members from all the sectarian groups and backed by international police. The factor that will most determine the fate of these cities, however, will be whether the sectarian groups find the overall political settlement fair and viable. And as painful as it may be, the United States will have to assist those Iraqis who wish to relocate to safer terrain, temporarily or permanently. It is essential to realize that this proposal will not cause ethnic cleansing or the country's breakup. These terrible things are already happening. Regionalism may be the only option left to stop them.

The second element of this policy is to bring the Sunnis on board with regionalism with an offer they cannot reasonably refuse. The carrot will have to be very sweet, namely, control of their own region in the center of the country and a constitutionally guaranteed share of oil revenues. Until recently, most Sunni leaders flatly opposed controlling their own region because they fully expected to be running the whole country again. They still saw themselves as masters of their universe and wanted Iraq to remain intact and ready for them to reassume the power they held for hundreds of years. And they pressed for the strongest possible central government.

Now, however, growing numbers of Sunnis are recalculating. Many see that a centralized structure would leave the Sunnis as a permanent minority in a government run by Shiites and Kurds. And whereas the Sunnis used to be convinced that they were invincible in battle, they now understand that they would be the principal victims of a civil war. Today it is obvious, except to Sunni fanatics, that the Kurds have the best militia in the country and that the Shiites are willing and able to fight. And so the prospect of running their own affairs in a Sunni region now looks more appealing to Sunni leaders.

The Sunnis' remaining nightmare is about money, but this could be taken care of with a second carrot: oil revenues. The present constitution calls for distributing "oil and gas revenues in a fair manner in proportion to population." But it does not define "fair" or provide population percentages. It refers to "extracted" oil, suggesting that the rule applies only to current revenues, not to future revenues, which are expected to be much greater, thanks to increased production. The current constitution also disadvantages the Sunnis by giving the final say on oil revenues to the governments in the regions that have the oil, leaving the Sunnis out in the cold, since almost all of Iraq's oil and gas resources sit either in the Kurdish north (about 20 percent) or in the Shiite south (about 80 percent).

The cure is to satisfy all but the greediest Sunnis by amending the constitution to make oil and gas production and revenues the sole province of the central government and to determine that both present and future revenues will be distributed according to population percentages. Such an arrangement would be far better for the Sunnis than the current deal and infinitely preferable to what they would receive -- namely, nothing -- if the country split into three separate states. It should be sufficient to co-opt most Sunni leaders into subscribing to the federal approach and provide them with considerable incentives to try to curb the insurgency in the Sunni region. The Sunnis would gain far less from being granted a larger role in the central government, the plan the Bush administration is currently advocating.

The third element of this third way would be protecting the rights of minorities and women by linking U.S. aid to regional governments to their respect for the politically and culturally vulnerable people in their regions. For women, especially in Shiite territory, and for Kurds, Sunnis, and Shiites living in a region other than their ethnic group's own, there will be problems. Washington will not be able to solve these problems, but it must be tough and clear about trying to ameliorate them.

Fourth, the U.S. military should prepare a plan for the orderly and safe withdrawal and redeployment of U.S. forces, to be carried out before the end of 2008. It should also provide for a residual force that would deter and fight any large-scale military disruptions by insurgents or others and continue training Iraqis for the Iraqi military and police forces. Such a measure would recognize the fact that U.S. troops are both part of the solution and part of the problem. They must stay in Iraq -- although in declining numbers -- to take care of the security problem, and they must leave steadily in order to effectively motivate Iraqis to take over security matters.

Finally, Iraq's territorial integrity should be reinforced through a regional nonaggression pact, which must be achieved through active international diplomacy. As a first step, a regional security conference should be convened, where Iraq's neighbors, including Iran, should be encouraged to pledge respect for Iraq's borders and its federal system and to establish procedures to implement a nonaggression plan. Iraq's neighbors have strong incentives to try to make such a deal work. For Turkey, it would be the best way to avoid Kurdistan's becoming a separate state and a rallying point for separatist Kurds in Turkey. States with majority Sunni populations, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, would find consolation in the fact that Iraqi Shiites and Iran would not be controlling all of Iraq. For Iran, stability in Iraq would help it avoid new and unsettling confrontations with other countries. All parties would also share a strong interest in preventing Iraq's meltdown into a civil war, which could draw them into a wider conflict.

The United Nations, particularly the five permanent members of the Security Council plus the European Union, should precede the conference with appropriate diplomacy and help promote some kind of regional mechanism to ensure that the proposed nonaggression deal, once in place, is respected.

Of course, all parties would bring cynicism to such a diplomatic enterprise. But a similar mechanism has worked for Bosnia and is worth trying in regard to Iraq. It is a long shot, but a necessary venture nonetheless.


All wars are messy, and all plans for ending them are flawed. But the messy war in Iraq could metastasize into an out-of-control civil war and a regional conflict. The Bush strategy does almost nothing to reduce these terrible risks and only threatens to drag the United States deeper into the Iraq quagmire. As the flaws in this strategy become ever more evident, it is increasingly possible that the American people will sweep aside Bush's strategy in favor of ill-considered demands for an immediate and total pullout. Even optimists about Iraq would be remiss not to confront these looming dangers. Americans and Iraqis must look at other choices.

Uniting Iraq by decentralizing it is not likely to make most Iraqis happy, but it is a plan that gives each group most of what it considers essential: re-blessed autonomy for the Kurds, some degree of autonomy and money for the Sunnis, and for the Shiites, the historic freedom to rule themselves and enjoy their future riches. For all of these parties, it is perhaps the last chance to escape civil war.

This plan provides reasonable time for Iraqis to tend to their own security, and its incentives are tangible. It is carefully paced to salvage the honor of those Americans who served and sacrificed themselves in Iraq. And it allows the U.S government both to depart honorably and to leave Iraq to the Iraqis for their own disposition -- as it should be.

Leslie H. Gelb is President Emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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