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Iraq: U.S. Experts Discuss Prospects For 'Soft Partitioning'

  • Andrew Tully --> Coalition forces erected this barrier in Baghdad to separate Sunna and Shi'ite neighborhoods (epa) WASHINGTON, July 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- If partitioning Iraq is inevitable, then don't waste time resisting it. That's the conclusion of Edward Joseph of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

However, both Joseph and O'Hanlon say partitioning Iraq was far from their first choice of how to set up the country politically following the removal of Saddam Hussein. But if it's happening, O'Hanlon said, they propose trying to make it happen well.

They call their proposal "soft partitioning" -- keeping Iraq as a single, sovereign country, but with three distinct regions, each responsible for its own security and governing institutions.

Under a soft-partitioning program, some populations would be asked to relocate in order to help keep each region ethnically coherent.

"Whether you like the idea of soft partition or not -- and frankly most of us don't, and it wouldn't be a first choice for very many people at all -- it's happening in Iraq," O'Hanlon said during a July 5 presentation at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. "Up to 100,000 people a month are being violently displaced from their homes. It is being ethnically segregated. It is becoming Bosnia, in some ways. And we would rather talk about how you might manage that process rather than have the death squads and the militias do the separation for us."

Weakening The Power Center

Joseph and O'Hanlon said there is no reason why Baghdad couldn't be a kind of capital, but it shouldn't be the country's power center. In fact, as Joseph argued, the existence of a power center in Iraq is what's causing the sectarian violence.

"The more power is concentrated in Baghdad, the more Shi'ites will have to dominate it," he said. "That's the fundamental fact, and it's basically an axiom of reality in today's Iraq. And as we show in the paper, marshalling the evidence, the so-called security dilemma that this produces infects government from the highest levels and helps propel the sectarian conflict. And so it would appear at this point, given Iraq's political realities, that it's self-defeating to insist on a centralized structure for Iraq."

Even a soft partitioning, Joseph and O'Hanlon concede, would require some displacements. But they believe such migrations can be managed in order to avoid the sort of ethnic cleansing that is occurring now.

Under a soft-partitioning program, some populations would be asked to relocate in order to help keep each region ethnically coherent. But Joseph and O'Hanlon said it would not be necessary to force anyone to move.

Joseph said mandatory relocation would be morally little better than ethnic cleansing. But, he added, there's another way to look at the situation.

"There's a flip side to the moral question, which is: of course it's wrong to forcibly uproot people from their homes," he said. "But is it morally correct to insist -- as is the current policy -- to insist that people remain where they're living when you can't protect them?"

Iran Looks On

What about neighboring Iran? O'Hanlon says he doesn't believe the current government of Iran wants to help Iraq, even though both countries are predominantly Shi'ite.

O'Hanlon said he believes the United States should talk with Iran, but not to expect any positive response.

Click to enlarge the image.

"Implicitly -- and now I'll make it explicit -- what we're saying is, Iraqis matter more than Iran," O'Hanlon said. "I don't expect any favors from Iran. I think Iran -- as our intelligence agencies have been concluding -- is in a proxy war against the United States. I think Iran would be willing to risk a destabilized Iraq to see us defeated. I expect no goodwill from them. I still think we should talk to them, partly to put pressure on them and to embarrass them in the eyes of the world and present the evidence we've got in front of as many other countries as possible."

The idea of partitioning Iraq isn't new. It was first proposed by a group including U.S. Senator Joseph Biden (Democrat, Delaware), a candidate for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The White House has rejected the proposal. Instead, it's working to build up a strong central government and parliament in Baghdad.

O'Hanlon said he, too, once rejected the idea, but now it seems to him the only sensible way to pacify Iraq.

"This is very hard to do. I'm sure, frankly, it's impossible to do with complete robustness, which is why [Joseph] and I waited until 2007 to propose this plan -- or actually late 2006, which was the first time we went into print with this," O'Hanlon explained. "Because at that point it just seemed that there had been enough civil war, enough ethnic cleansing, enough violence -- that frankly holding on to the idea of an integrated Iraq the way it used to be was no longer viable and the risks of implementing soft partition were no longer greater than the risks of what we already were trying."

Searching For A Way Forward
A boy looks out from his Baghdad home (AFP)

LOOKING BEYOND AL-MALIKI: RFE/RL Iraq analyst Kathleen Ridolfo led an RFE/RL briefing about the changing political landscape in Iraq, focusing on efforts to gain the upper hand in the event that the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki falls.


Listen to the entire briefing (about 70 minutes):
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THE COMPLETE STORY: RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.