Plans for Iraq’s Future: Federalism, Separatism, and Partition

A Senate proposal calling for the restructuring of Iraq’s government has drawn fire from Iraqis who liken it to partition. Amid the criticism have emerged other controversial options.

October 17, 2007 4:16 pm (EST)

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A non-binding resolution that sailed through the U.S. Senate in September 2007 reignited debate over Iraq’s political future. Introduced by Senators Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-DE) and Sam Brownback, (R-KS), the measure calls for a decentralized Iraqi government “based upon the principles of federalism” and advocates for a relatively weak central government with strong Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish regional administrations. The bill, based on a proposal first introduced by Biden and CFR President Emeritus Leslie H. Gelb, passed the Senate by a 75 to 23 margin. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) and Chris Dodd (D-CT), rivals in a crowded presidential field that includes Sen. Biden, both supported the amendment. Despite the bipartisan support in Washington, Iraqi politicians in Baghdad reacted furiously. Iraq’s divided central government has condemned the measure, calling it “an incorrect reading” of Iraq’s history. Even the U.S. embassy in Baghdad came out against the federalism measure. Some experts, meanwhile, favor other forms of governmental realignment, including outright “partition” of Iraq into three separate states.

Don’t Call It “Partition”

The Biden-Brownback plan was borne of a broader five-point strategy Biden and Gelb introduced in May 2006. Similar to views expressed (PDF)by the U.S. military, the two argue that ethnic tensions threaten Iraq’s long-term stability and are calling for the establishment of three (or more) semi-autonomous ethnic regions linked by a power-sharing agreement in Baghdad. “The idea is to maintain a unified Iraq by federalizing it and giving Kurds, Shiites, and Sunnis control over their daily lives in their own regions,” Biden writes. The central government would maintain control over “truly common interests” such as border defense, foreign policy, and oil production and revenue sharing. Regional governors would then administer their own regional affairs. Biden argues that the plan—similar to the Dayton formula which calmed the Bosnian-Serb-Croat war in 1995—is in accordance with Iraq’s constitution (PDF), which defines the Republic of Iraq as consisting of “a decentralized capital, regions and governorates, and local administrations.”

Specific Concerns

The proposal draws sweeping criticisms. Many Iraqi political parties, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s United Iraqi Alliance, denounce the measure as a U.S. attempt to meddle in Iraqi sovereignty. The U.S. government, through its embassy in Baghdad, says the resolution “would produce extraordinary suffering and bloodshed.” Even Iraqi citizens appear unified in their opposition. A September 2007 opinion poll (BBC) found that only 9 percent of more than two thousand respondents favored “a country divided into separate states," while 62 percent said they favored a central government in Baghdad.

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Timeline: The Iraq War Anthony H. Cordesman, a Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, sees others reasons to question the type of federalism favored by the Biden-Brownback proposal. For one, Cordesman writes in a new report, that it’s unclear how Iraqi security forces would operate under a federal strategy. Creation of separate zones or enclaves could also expose some regions to external threats, including from Iran, and would likely fail to reduce sectarian tensions. Further, Cordesman writes, any “overt action to divide Iraq by the U.S. would almost certainly raise the already high level of Iraqi anger and hostility to the U.S. presence in Iraq.”

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Other experts say support for the federal strategy by the Kurds in northern Iraq has escalated tensions between Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), where fears of Kurdish separatism simmer. Hashim Taie of the Iraqi Accordance Front, the parliament’s principal Sunni bloc, told the Los Angeles Times the proposal amounts to “a dangerous partitioning.” Middle East expert Joost Hiltermann, of the International Crisis Group, says regardless of what the resolution aims to do, “It has been interpreted to say (in the region) that the Senate wants to carve up Iraq (in the worst imperial tradition).” Hiltermann adds that the U.S. should stop pushing top-down governmental restructuring. “They would be enormously difficult in logistical terms, as most people remain intermingled; it would take a major military effort with additional troops; and it would be enormously bloody,” he says.

Faithful to Federalism

Nonetheless, supporters remain committed to the language. Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd and a proponent of federalism, has praised the resolution. Falah Mustafa Bakir, director of the Foreign Relations Department for the KRG, explains the Kurdish position in this interview with ADD LINK TO INTERVIEW Biden and Gelb, too, have stood by their turn of phrase. In an October 2007 Washington Post op-ed, they argued federalism would benefit all Iraqis without partitioning the country. In an interview with CFR’s Bernard Gwertzman,Gelb goes further, suggesting a federal form of government may be the only way to correct the Bush administration’s failed top-down experiment in Iraq. The White House “thought that they could build a strong central government first by elections and then by them putting pressure on the different parties,” Gelb says. “It has not worked for four years and it still doesn’t work.”

Not the Only Option

“Federalism” is receiving the bulk of attention in Washington and Baghdad, but it is by no means the only restructuring buzzword swirling in foreign policy circles. Edward P. Joseph, a visiting scholar at the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, write in USA Today that they prefer less subtle terminology: “soft partition.” “Some critics argue that soft partition would make the United States vulnerable to the charge of having deliberately ‘weakened a strong Arab state,’” they write. “They overlook the fact that by toppling Saddam, the United States did weaken a militarily strong Arab state.”

Cordesman, on the other hand, notes that no “partition”—interpreted by many to mean the creation of separate states with complete autonomy—can be termed “soft.” “The term ‘Soft Partitioning’ has also been shown to be a cruel oxymoron,” he writes. “Virtually every aspect of sectarian and ethnic struggle to date has been brutal, and come at a high economic cost to those affected. The reality is that partitioning must be described as ‘hard’ by any practical political, economic, and humanitarian standard.”

Experts see other problems with the partition approach, including questions about where borders might be drawn, how oil revenues would be divided, and who would control the flood of newly created refugees. Reidar Visser, a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs and editor of the Iraq website, argues that no matter what it’s called—“federalism,” “partition,” or even “separatism”—divisions based on ethnicity are unlikely to gain popular support in Iraq. “Iraqis tend to believe that when federalism is implemented along sectarian lines it will be more divisive than other variants of federalism and will soon lead to partition,” he says. Iraq has never been neatly divided into sectarian units, Visser adds, and to advocate a plan that does so now would be “particularly risky.”

Washington as Global Watchdog

The biggest unanswered question may be one raised in the blogosphere: What makes U.S. lawmakers think they have the answers to Iraqi foreign policy spats? R.J. Eskow, writing at the Huffington Post, accuses Washington of revisionist history. “Is the government listening? The partitioning of nations has been a human tragedy in the past. Best estimates suggest that half a million people died during the partition of India.” Marc Lynch, a professor of political science at George Washington University, writes on his blog that the Biden-Brownback resolution succeeded in infuriating Iraqis while endorsing a plan that “would massively increase suffering” without solving Iraq’s problems. Ilan Goldenberg, executive director of the National Security Network, says the federalist strategy offers some promise but lacks specifics. “Clearly the Iraqis and their Sunni neighbors don’t like the Gelb-Biden plan, but there are many other types of decentralized approaches that might be more acceptable.”

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