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A Two-State Solution for Iraq? (Part I)

Could the best solution to the crisis in Iraq be to split the country in two?

January 18, 2007

Could the best solution to the crisis in Iraq be to split the country in two?

The world does not suffer from a short supply of new ideas for Iraq — but Iraqis are getting little opportunity to evaluate them. The military situation in Iraq has become so intractable that it, quite literally, cries out for political experimentation.

That seems to be what top Pentagon generals mean when they say the only solutions for Iraq are political, as opposed to military, ones. About the only political alternative — other than moving toward direct talks with Iran and Syria — has been a three-way ethnic partition of Iraq.

The problems of that approach, however, are glaring. Either Kurds or Sunnis would go without the support of oil revenues, depending on which group won the struggle for the major oil fields near Kirkuk in the north of Iraq.

Turkey would probably feel compelled to invade a purely Kurdish state at some point — if only because its domestic Kurdish rebels would at some point probably provoke a military reaction and try to use Kurdish Iraq as a refuge.

And a Shiite state could well be unstable, with the traditional, largely agrarian majority in the south pitted against the angry and desperately poor urban core of Moqtada Sadr’s followers from the slums of east Baghdad. Signs of an internecine Shiite civil war have already emerged in fighting outside of Basra.

Finally, a three-way partition would make all the neighbors unhappy, not just Turkey. Saudi Arabia would be unsettled by a Shiite state on its border that included a populist movement like Sadr’s Mahdi Army.

And Iran would be unhappy about an unapologetic Sunni state near its borders whose leadership helped Saddam prosecute his withering ten-year war against the Islamic Republic.

Amazingly, no one has talked much about a two-way partition. On the surface, the idea seems unpromising. After all, at least one of the two parts of the former Iraq would mix ethnic groups — so it would not purchase the peace of ethnic homogeneity. In addition, creating two new states is potentially troublesome, with all the unsettling ramifications of a proliferation of new sovereigns in the least stable part of the world.

Still, the idea deserves a closer look. To date, the United States has tried lots of military alternatives — most recently redeploying troops to Baghdad. But it has not proposed many political alternatives to Iraqi leaders.

It is time for the United States to embrace the same kind of trial-and-error approach in its political efforts that it has used to avoid catastrophe in its thinly manned military efforts. In full recognition that such a proposal is useful only to the extent that it gets people thinking about better options, here is an outline of a two-state solution for Iraq.

The new border would run from southwest to northeast roughly through Baghdad’s airport. The state to the northwest — let’s call it New Babylon, just to keep track — would include all five million Kurds and nearly all five million Sunni.

It would include all of Baghdad and all the two to three million urban and suburban Shia in its vicinity. It would also include all of the northern oil fields.

In contrast, the state to the southeast would be a purely Shiite state, including all the Shia of the rural south and Basra and all of the major Shiite holy sites. Naturally, it would also include the southern oilfields. But it would include no part of metropolitan Baghdad — with the exception of access to the airport.

Let’s call this southeastern state Sistanistan, for the moment. Of course, there is no way that the revered Shiite scholar and cleric Sistani would condescend to play a political role in any state, but we may as well be clear about whose influence would dominate this one.

It would be reasonable to expect a state like Sistanistan, which draws together the most-traditional elements of Iraq’s Shiite community — and none of Iraq’s least-traditional, Baghdad-based Shia — to observe a mild version of sharia law.

It would maintain cordial if not intimate relations with Iran, become very rich from oil and function as a sort of Saudi-style guardian of the world’s most important Shiite holy sites.

On the other hand, a polyglot state such as New Babylon, anchored in the major metropolitan area of Baghdad, would probably focus on industrializing its agricultural and refining sectors and becoming a trade center for the Middle East.

The reasons for such a partition have little to do with expectations, however — and much to do with the way it manages the incentives and fears of each of Iraq’s major population groups today.

Editor’s note: You can read part two of this essay by clicking here.