Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2006, pages 38-39

Two Views

Should Iraq Be Partitioned?

History vs. Statusquocracy: A Negotiated Partition in Iraq?

By Russell Warren Howe

Bush administration spokesmen continually stress the need to preserve the unity of Iraq. Why? The country is geographically and ethno-religiously divided into three: Sunni Kurds, Sunni Arabs, and Shi’i Arabs, with Turkoman and Christian minorities. The present endemic violence has a strong chance of boiling over into civil warfare if a federation or confederation is imposed on terms not acceptable to all three major groups. The Sunni Kurds in the north, in particular, have stressed that they want to preserve the autonomy which the U.S. Air Force overflights virtually created in Saddam Hussain’s time. Both main Kurdish leaders talk openly of an independent Kurdistan. Would the Sunni Arabs in the west accept anything less—anything that stresses that they are a minority in the 21st century version of a colonial concept in which the Shi’i are a majority, enjoying close relations with the exuberantly Shi’i nation next door, Iran?

Imperial powers—and in the Middle East today, we have to accept that Washington looks as imperialist as London or Paris looked in the past—have always insisted on keeping their colonial possessions territorially unified. There are countless examples: the Ottoman Empire, in the days when Iraq was called Mesopotamia in the West; the British, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Austro-Hungarian empires, and so on. The French, for instance, were never willing to subdivide Indochina into Annam and Cochin-China (now, together, called Vietnam), Laos and Cambodia. Indochina subdivided itself after independence and would not wish to be a single entity again. Britain subdivided India, West Pakistan and East Pakistan (now, Bangladesh, meaning East Bengal) only at independence in 1947, to avert civil war. Yugoslavia (i.e. pan-Slavia), formed after the defeat of Austro-Hungary in World War I, divided itself into six nations after the collapse of the communist Tito regime. Czechoslovakia divided itself into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Three small monarchies which were part of a larger entity under Napoleon became the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. In 1922, London gave independence to most of Ireland. It’s notable that, whatever frictions occur within the 25-nation European Union, relations seem always to be cordial between London and Dublin, and among The Hague, Brussels and Luxembourg.

Partition isn’t always smooth when imposed from outside.

Historically, it’s evident that partition isn’t always smooth when imposed from outside. When France took the League of Nations mandate for the Ottoman Empire’s Assyria after World War I, it hived off the predominantly Christian (i.e., pro-European) region between Mount Lebanon and the Mediterranean and called it “the Lebanon,” but Damascus did not accept the idea: it refused to send an ambassador to Beirut, or accept a Lebanese envoy in Damascus. It was only the situation created by Syria’s embroilment in the assassination of popular former Premier Rafiq Hariri that ultimately drove Syria from sharing power in Beirut.

Iraq was riled when Britain, under its League of Nations mandate for Mesopotamia, carved off the oil-rich emirate of Kuwait, making the emir permanently beholden to London. In 1991, Saddam Hussain, on the pretext that Kuwait was drawing too much oil from a shared deposit, invaded Kuwait, with largely popular support. (Kuwait was, of course, subsequently liberated by an international force led by the U.S.) What’s worth noting in these cases is that although Baghdad and Damascus objected to the independence of Kuwait and Beirut imposed by great powers, Lebanon and Kuwait themselves welcomed their independence, recalling that even the Ottoman emperor grouped ethno-religious entities into separate vilayas.

Even voluntary partition presents some immediate problems. When unities are subdivided, this naturally leaves minority populations in the new unities. Viewers of Sir Richard Attenborough’s film “Gandhi” will remember the scene when Muslims fleeing India and Hindus leaving West Pakistan in opposite directions begin hurling stones at each other. If Iraqis negotiate partition into Shi’i Arab, Sunni Arab and Sunni Kurdish states, there’ll be a need for a U.N. peacekeeping force with buses from such neutral and not unpopular countries as Canada and Sweden.

The fact that the Shi’i state would have sole access to the sea, and that most of the oil will be in Kurdistan and the Shi’i state, would seem, historically speaking, to be less important than has been suggested. There’s no reason to believe that the new oil-rich states would not sell oil at a negotiated price to the Sunni Arab state if it cannot satisfy its needs from its own resources, since not doing so would give this market away to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Whether the Sunni Arab state should share financially in the Shi’i and Kurdish oil revenues would be a matter for negotiation, as it is already. Nor, judging from history, is there any reason to think that access to Basra and Um Qasr would be denied to the two landlocked Sunni states, just as Trieste has always welcomed being the main port for Switzerland, Bavaria and Austria. And the Sunni states could always have access to the sea through Syria and Turkey.

It’s true that the city of Baghdad requires a delicately negotiated solution—perhaps divided into three as Berlin was divided into four in the days of the Cold War. Transforming it into Lichtenstein might be too sophisticated.

Clearly, partition should not be imposed—just as “preserving unity” should not be imposed. Compromise is the plasma of diplomacy and negotiation. Looking at historical precedents, there are numerous ways for the three parties to plan for a peaceful future—including a solution for Baghdad.

As I stressed above, the partitioned states that emerged from the end of the Ottoman, French, British, Austro-Hungarian and other empires seem to have gotten along better with each other after partition. Obviously, the main argument for partition in Iraq would be to end the current violent animosities. Divorced spouses don’t usually kiss as they leave the courtroom, but they rarely have qualms about doing it later.

For Washington, partition should make it possible for most U.S. and other foreign occupation forces to be withdrawn, with relatively small contingency forces remaining in Kuwait and in Kurdistan—where American troops are actually popular, and where they could prevent Kurdistan from bothering NATO ally Turkey, and vice versa. 


Russell Warren Howe is the author of 22 books of history, travel and fiction. At 80, he is finishing his memoirs.

Breaking up Iraq Would Lead To Disaster

By Andrew I. Killgore

Britain formed Iraq in 1921 from parts of the defeated Ottoman empire at the end of World War I, despite the fact that the three parts forming the new state are religiously and ethnically divided.

The northern sector is populated by non-Arab Sunni Kurds, who want independence from Iraq. The central portion, which includes the capital, Baghdad, is made up of the traditionally dominant Sunni Arabs. The southern part is populated by Shi’i Arabs, who comprise 60 percent of Iraq’s total population of 25 million.

In a divided Iraq, Baghdad would have to be a separate entity—for, with a population of five million, many of its diverse inhabitants are intermarried.

Turkey, with 14 million restive Kurds, would be hostile to an independent Kurdish state in neighboring Iraq. Iran, with five to six million Kurds of its own, would be uneasy as well. A serious bone of contention between the Kurds and Iraqi Arabs—Sunni and Shi’i alike—is the northern city of Kirkuk, on the edge of Kurdish-occupied territory and with a third of Iraq’s oil. The present government is doing nothing to encourage Kurdish efforts to increase its population there.

Were southern Iraq to become independent, it would constitute an irresistible attraction to the 70 million overwhelmingly Shi’i Iranians. If Shi’i Iraq linked up with Iran, even loosely, the result would be a nation of 85 million, controlling at least 15 percent of the world’s oil. This new country, moreover, might well not be friendly to the United States.

Sunnis make up 85 percent of the Arab world’s population, and Shi’i the rest. Because an enlarged Iran would be seen as a threat to Sunni Arabs, war would be the eventual result. In the long run the Sunnis would win, but war and instability would threaten the supply of oil to the West, and oil could rise to $100 per barrel.

In summary, the Turks would not accept an independent Kurdish state in Iraq, and the Sunni Arabs would not accept a Shi’i Arab state in southern Iraq allied to Shi’i Iran. Thus it makes good sense to keep Iraq united.

In fact, only Israel would profit from a breakup of Iraq. In the neocon opus, “A Clean Break! A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” main authors Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, David Wurmser and Paul Wolfowitz proposed “removing Saddam from power in Iraq...” This document was written in 1996 for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Removing Saddam Hussain from power was a precursor for breaking up Iraq—an Israeli objective.

American interests demand that Iraq remain united. 


Andrew I. Killgore, a retired foreign service officer and former U.S. ambassador, is publisher of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs,.

Additional information