|Three into one proves an odd fit
November 4, 2006
Sydney Morning Herald
The suggestion that Iraq should be carved into three
holds as much danger as it does possible solutions,
writes Paul McGeough.
CARTOGRAPHY IS SUCH jolly good fun. Take this river,
slash a pencil across the map till it hits those
mountains and we'll give it a flag and call it a
country. Stop! Go back - the oil fields are meant to
be on "our" side of the line.
That's pretty well how it was done in the early 1900s.
Fabled names from the British Colonial Office stomped
the marshes of Mesopotamia - Percy Cox, Gertrude Bell
and T.E. Lawrence. Especially colourful was the
pipe-smoking St John Philby, the father of the English
spy Kim, who careered around the deserts on a
motorcycle, drawing borders as he went.
That's how we got Iraq. They threw together three
loosely affiliated provinces of the collapsed Ottoman
Empire - Mosul, Baghdad and Basra. But they had no
regard for the lack of national or even communal
interest between the three provinces.
Fast forward to 2003. The Americans, like the British
before them, refused to go to their libraries and
archives, where shelves groan with sociological and
political studies dating from the 13th century,
warning that the geographic putty they wanted to mould
as the new Iraq was treacherous stuff for would-be
Down the centuries, the regional landscape has changed
dramatically - politically, commercially, militarily.
But the missing ingredient has always been any real
sense of nation. To the extent that the people we call
Iraqis were bound at all, the cohesive forces have
been the tribe, the clan and - more recently - the
mosque. Attempts to centralise power were met with
contempt and, inevitably, they failed.
Ironically, the most successful was that by the ousted
dictator Saddam Hussein. But even he could manipulate
the tribes and clans for only so long and only with
the brute force for which he is likely to be sentenced
to death tomorrow.
The high point for Saddam was 1991, when tribal chiefs
assembled at his presidential palace in Baghdad. They
laid at his feet banners that represented their
mini-statehood and they removed their headdress as a
tribal sign of deference and allegiance.
This was not about love and respect for Saddam, so
much as the dictator's ability to strike the right
price - in money and jobs, power and influence - as he
played the tribes against each other.
Saddam even took to calling his Baath party the "tribe
of tribes". But by 2003 the sheiks had had a gutful,
so they stepped back as their "chief of chieftains"
was taken down by an American-led strike.
Amid the excitement of a successful military invasion,
acknowledging the tribes was too much like
anti-democratic mumbo-jumbo for the predominantly
Republican evangelicals who swarmed into Baghdad on a
mission to rebuild Iraq as a model of democracy.
But the tribes' renewed sense of entitlement was a
time bomb left for the Americans by Saddam. Today it
is exploding, and as Iraq falls apart we are
witnessing the birth of at least three new nations -
already we know the mountains of the north as
Kurdistan; the resource-rich, southern triangle likely
will become Shiiastan; and a barren, central belt
could become Sunnistan.
Now that "stay the course" is starting to mean "cut
and run" in US rhetoric, advocates of breaking up the
country are getting traction in the Iraq discourse in
Washington. Britain is falling into line and Australia
doesn't matter. American leverage - diplomatic,
economic and military - is just about exhausted and,
despite all their vital interests, none of the
neighbours will help - except to stir the pot.
There are many recipes for attempting to unscramble
the Iraqi eggs. "Hard" partition, "soft" federalism,
"loose" confederation and, try this one, "Quebec-like
asymmetrical decentralisation". But all entail
stepping down the road towards dismantling what the
British built in the years after World War I.
Incredibly, against the backdrop of so much suffering
in liberated Iraq, some US analysts still believe they
have the luxury of choosing between the break-up of
Iraq and a full-blooded civil war, seemingly
forgetting that one is usually born of the other and -
invariably - at huge and painful cost to the local
A few cheerfully fall back on the Vietnam-era policy
of bombing villages to save them. In an essay
circulating on the internet, Major Isaiah Wilson III,
a former military planner in Iraq who now lectures at
West Point, brims with enthusiasm as he answers his
"Should we give civil war a chance …? For Iraq, as
ironic and illogical as it may seem, a true and
sustainable future may come in the aftermath of the
very sectarian-based civil war we have been striving
The partition massacres in India-Pakistan and, more
recently, in the Balkans are either forgotten or
factored in as just another price to be paid, with
numbing suggestions such as retired US Colonel T.X.
Hammes's offering to The Washington Post: "We will
have to develop and fund some kind of displacement
agency to move the families …"
The Brookings Institution's Michael O'Hanlon also
masks the inevitable further suffering by Iraqis in
chillingly abstract terms: "… the international
community and the Iraqi Government could help offer
housing and jobs to those wishing to move as well as
protection en route. Houses left behind would revert
to government ownership, to be offered to individuals
of other ethnic groups who wanted them, in what would
largely become a program of swapping".
How might the new new Iraq look?
The noise you hear is the back door slamming as the
Kurds quit Iraq. Since 1991 they have had virtual
autonomy and they have managed to preserve and
strengthen it in the new Iraqi constitution.
They have a booming economy. They have their own
language and now have adopted English over Arabic as
the second language to be taught in their schools.
They have their own military and their own laws; they
refuse to fly the Iraqi flag and staff of the Baghdad
ministries and the Iraqi military are barred from
Shiites are now demanding that they be allowed to have
in the south what the Kurds have in the north. The
Shiite factions have taken to shooting at each other
in recent weeks but while their divisions are voiced
as support or opposition to partition, they are read
by some analysts more as tests of numerical strength
and a contest for control of oil and funds.
The imposition of strict Islamic codes across the
south suggests the government of Shiiastan would be a
version of the neighbouring Iranian theocracy. That
would be deeply disappointing for Washington.
The main Sunni players in Iraq are fighting any
break-up, principally because Iraq's vast oil wealth
lies beneath the Kurdish strongholds in the north (40
per cent) and the Shiite strongholds of the south (60
per cent). But al-Qaeda had already declared a Sunni
Islamic emirate through central Iraq. And if the Kurds
and the Shiites go their own way, it would amount to a
lock-out - the Sunnis would have been forced into a
sad and sullen state, sandwiched between their runaway
neighbours to the north and south.
Secular and Islamist factions could well end up
fighting for control of Sunnistan; a contest that Rend
al-Rahim, an Iraqi community leader in the US,
predicts would make it a radical, Taliban-style regime
and a potential breeding ground for regional, if not
global, terrorism. This would be bitterly
disappointing for Washington.
In Baghdad recently, the Herald asked one of the
architects of the new Shiiastan about the Sunni fears
of abandonment and impoverishment in their new
statelet. He replied dismissively: "So what?"
War has neutered Baghdad as a central authority, the
Iraqi Parliament has legislated for the first steps
towards dismemberment of the country and the new Iraqi
constitution that Washington hailed as a victory for
democracy also happens to be a break-up blueprint.
The constitution reduces Baghdad to a shell of a
capital - it might end up with control of foreign
affairs and some fiscal powers, but tax-raising, much
security and at least all new resources royalties
would go to the new regional capitals.
There is hardly a national bone among the new Iraqi
leadership - instead of running the country for all
Iraqis, they fight for sect and ethnic control of
ministries which many of them then rob blind. The
security forces are the same - they too have
splintered into ethnic and religious fiefdoms with
little regard for the national good.
The dissolutionists gloss over the intense intermixing
of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds in Iraq's biggest cities
- arguing that Baghdad could be a Canberra- or
Washington-style capital state, or that the population
in Baghdad and Mosul could be shunted to whichever
bank of the Tigris River they already dominate. The
United Nations estimates that since the US-led
invasion, 1.6 million Iraqis have fled the country and
another 1.5 million have been internally displaced. In
other conflicts we gave this process a name - ethnic
The oil-rich, north-eastern city of Kirkuk is an
explosive element of the new equation: the Kurds want
it; the Shiites and Sunnis insist they can't have it.
The Kurds argue it is Kurdish, but local Arabs, many
of whom were trucked in as part of Saddam's program of
Arabisation, and a sizeable Turkoman population,
disagree. No one seems to have given any thought to
the fate of Iraq's significant Christian population.
The likeliest aftermath of partition would be
continuing war. The Americans would be safer in bases
in the new Kurdistan and Shiiastan which also would be
able to enlist their respective militias as security
forces to man their borders.
Territorial disputes would leave stretchmarks the
length of all the new borders and Sunnistan,
inevitably, would be home to terrorist elements and to
Sunni nationalists refusing to concede the loss of
what was their share of Iraq's natural resources -
oil, in particular. That means a lot more war.
If the Sunnis were starved of foreign reconstruction
aid, they would soon fall into line, some of the
dissolutionists claim. "Let them rot," argues a
retired US Army officer, Ralph Peters.
The regional consequences are dire, too. Do the Shiite
theocrats in Tehran put Shiiastan in their pocket?
Will the Shiites of adjoining north-eastern Saudi
Arabia, whose territory holds much of the kingdom's
oil wealth, want to join in? How much Kurdish autonomy
would Turkey tolerate? How much Sunni dispossession
could Saudi Arabia and Jordan stand?
And whatever the Americans do in Iraq now, they can
hardly move without being accused by at least one of
the three main factions of siding with one of the
One of the darkest warnings from analysts on the
hopelessness of Washington's position is their
underscoring of a deep lack of trust in the new Iraq.
No matter how watertight any deal on power- or
resource-sharing might seem, there are scores to be
settled so there is no reason for the Sunnis to trust
either the Shiites or the Kurds in the long term.
Another of their warnings is not to think just of
three regions. Some analysts predict volatility and
fragmentation within each of the three regions - there
are two Kurdish factions and numerous Shiite and Sunni
factions that are capable of turning on each other as
they jockey for supremacy in the respective regions.
SO AS civil war and disintegration continue apace,
what might we learn from the history of conflicts
around the globe? Stanford University's Professor
James Fearon had sobering news for a US congressional
committee in September.
He told them the average duration of post-World War II
civil wars around the globe is more than 10 years; the
chances of a successful power-sharing agreement ending
such conflicts are less than one in six; the presence
of foreign forces merely delays the inevitable -
whether they stayed for one or five more years, the
likely scenario on the departure of US forces is a
Lebanon-like civil war.
Those archives of advice that were ignored by
Washington also hold the ruminations of John Glubb, a
1920s British colonial officer who, in his diaries,
railed against the US and the British establishment
He wrote: "[They] continue to demand that the nations
of Asia and Africa should make a clean cut with their
past and, at one fell stroke, adopt the mentality and
traditions of the Western democracies … Would it not
be more practical, as well as more polite, if we left
these nations to govern themselves in their own way?"
Then, Glubb was seen as a captive of the romance of
the desert tribes. In these politically correct times,
some will dismiss his suggestion that the desert is no
place for democracy as racist.
But as the Americans try to backtrack out of a hell of
their own making and Iraq disintegrates into something
like it was 80-plus years ago, it seems that despite
his romance and racism, Glubb actually wrote what his
successors might belatedly call an "exit strategy".