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Leslie H. Gelb on How to Save Iraq

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
January 1, 2012


In early 2006, then-senator Joe Biden and I discussed Iraq for three unbothered hours while our shuttle to Washington idled on the LaGuardia tarmac. We agreed that without an internal political solution, Iraq would sooner or later tumble into bloody civil war. Too many Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds just simply hated each other. And we agreed that only one political plan stood a chance of working—federalism. Federalism is not partition. It is the tried and true means of allowing peoples who don't trust each other to live together in one country by decentralizing power. Today federalism remains Iraq's only hope for peace.

Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds have been at each other's throats for centuries. Under Saddam Hussein, Sunnis brutally ran the show in Iraq, though they were a minority and Shiites the majority. After the U.S. invasion, Shiites won nationwide elections and have since attempted to impose their rule nationwide. What's absolutely clear is that Kurds, in their largely autonomous northern region, and Sunni Arabs, in Iraq's center, flat out won't accept Shiite domination. As Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki began to tighten his control over the country some months ago, the killings mounted—and would have regardless of whether American troops remained in country.

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