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

What would a two-state Iraq mean for the Middle East — and the world as a whole?

January 19, 2007

What would a two-state Iraq mean for the Middle East — and the world as a whole?

Let’s turn the concept on its head — and ask how the two-state solution would serve the needs of all the major ethnicities living precariously in today’s Iraq. Primarily, there are four groups — the southern Shia, the Sunni community, the Kurdish community and the metropolitan Shia most closely associated with Moqtada Sadr.

The most traditional people in Iraq are probably the Shia who live south and east of Baghdad, perhaps reflecting their proximity to the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. These are the people who arguably suffered the greatest hardship under Saddam.

A homogeneous state of their own would seem to provide them the widest scope to adjust their government’s jurisdiction over religious as well as civil life. It would also seem to provide them the greatest protection from any hostile coalition of less traditional groups from the north.

For Iraq’s Sunni community, the establishment of a northern state immediately solves two problems. Instead of being a 20% minority dominated by a Shiite population simmering with understandable resentment toward Sunni rule under Saddam, Iraq’s Sunni would find themselves a 40% plurality in New Babylon.

And instead of questionable access to oil in Shiite and Kurdish states under one possible three-way partition, the Sunni community would enjoy shared but uncompromised access to all the reserves of northern Iraq.

For Iraq’s Kurdish community, New Babylon would solve two big problems. Like the Sunni, Kurds would enjoy shared but uncompromised access to all the oil reserves near Kirkuk in the north. More important, however, is the fact that their state would be largely free from unreasonable threats from Turkey.

It is true that Kurds would represent a 40% plurality of the new state. Sixty percent of that state, however, would be Arab, which simultaneously eliminates the danger of a purely Kurdish border state from the Turkish perspective — and ensures political support from other Arab states.

Perhaps the most important reason to consider a two-state partition, however, derives from the needs of the urban Shia of Baghdad — and perhaps even the ambitions of Moqtada Sadr himself.

A two-state partition arguably offers the best possible development solution for the inhabitants of places like Sadr City. These Shia would comprise 20% of the population of the northern state.

They would inevitably be the kingmakers of New Babylon — supporting Kurdish and Sunni political parties depending on the attention those parties paid to the development needs of Baghdad’s urban poor.

More immediately, they would no longer represent the vanguard — and an easily attacked one, at that — of a community of 15 million Shia threatening the livelihood of Iraq’s Sunnis.

As a minority of two to three million Shia in the northern state, they would instead be a potential political ally for both Kurds and Sunnis, and might well play a role similar to the minority Shiite population of Syria. The reasons insurgents attack them today would be gone.

Moqtada Sadr has repeatedly shown interest in working across sectarian lines — perhaps because he fears a purely Shiite state would marginalize him and ignore his poorer followers.

He and his successors could well find themselves frequent compromise candidates for the northern state’s presidency. And, in such a state, the needs of Baghdad’s Shia would rarely go unheard.

Nobody can claim that a two-state partition is a perfect solution. But all that is left on the table is to figure out what the lowest-risk option is for moving forward. And in that context, the two-state solution deserves a solid hearing — and testing.

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