TCS Daily


The Risks of Soft Partition for Iraq

By Peter F. Schaefer - September 19, 2007 12:00 AM

There is rising support, led by Presidential candidate Senator Joe Biden, for a "soft partition" of Iraq into what he calls a "federal Iraq." As this idea is moving to the front burner of political discourse, it is important to understand what his proposal actually is, and what it isn't. First of all, it is not federalism but rather the de facto partition of Iraq into three semi-sovereign, authoritarian regions defined almost exclusively by ethnic affiliation not political interests. It is "tribalization" not federalization and Iraq, as a sovereign state cannot survive it. So who cares? The war would be over and US troops would be, largely, home. Unfortunately, dividing the country under the enduring fiction of a single Iraq federal state will create political conflict, not discourse, and so divide the population between regionalists and nationalists. This will guarantee national instability, regional insurgency by remaining minorities, civil war as regions defend their ethnic brothers in other regions all of which would mean, in time, regional war.

In the mid-1990s, I argued in the Asian Wall Street Journal that the Philippines should change their constitution to a federal state from its current unitary structure. I made this suggestion in order to deal with their regionalism and ethnic differences because true federalism has enormous power to defuse these issues by stimulating peaceful political competition, establishing credible security forces and generating local funding sources all of which requires the construction of political coalitions. In the Philippines there are over 70 provinces but the power of individual governors to tax, police and manage is limited by their constitution which gives very little taxing power to the provinces, no equivalent of the national guard and the reality of a national police constabulary that is, really, the only source of viable police power.

A similar situation exists in Iraq today. Despite being a de jure federal state, it is a de facto unitary structure. Iraq, like the Philippines, would benefit from real federalism where a dispersion of power could defuse political differences. In Iraq's federalism-from-the-center where force - even the force of law - often amplifies regional, religious and cultural differences but then denies resources that would allow local interests to work out their problems amicably.

The articles of the Iraq Constitution begin by saying, "The Republic of Iraq is a single, independent federal state..." Unfortunately, it is not, and this is the root of the issue. The only source of public revenue is oil. Local police and fire, governors and mayors, clinics and bridges are all funded by oil using revenues allocated from the center. Money is power and so all the power is in the center, which in this case is dominated by one of the three main Iraqi ethnic groups. With the central government in charge of virtually all the revenues, Iraq is a de facto unitary shi'ite state which is the reason that there is so much political attention being paid to the legislation creating an equitable national petroleum law. This law will, literally, divide up all public revenue so this is a good step. In fact, some money has begun to flow to the governates before the law is passed which may be as important as Al Queda's excesses in stimulating Sunni cooperation with the US.

However, it is the Shia-dominated national parliament that will create the petroleum law and so there is always the risk that they can change that law. In fact, just the threat of reallocating revenues is a reality they can use to influence public spending and interfere in local politics without ever actually changing the law.

However, creating three regional states in Iraq based exclusively on ethnicity is a prescription for instability that goes beyond the current model of the Shi'ite dominated central government centralizing power. Partition is the wrong answer trying to address the wrong problem.

The Risks of Partition

Civil Rights: The establishment of Kurdish, Sunni and Shi'ite mini-states will create conditions which in time will prove fatal to a greater Iraqi state. These semi-soveriegn regions will establish ethnic political systems with no realistic minority rights. Even though the central constitution grants such rights, partition would ignore many constitutional stipulations. For instance, proponents of partition admit that millions of refugees will migrate to ethnically compatible states. But Article 23, Section 3/B says "Owning property for the purposes of population change shall be prohibited." This would necessarily have to be ignored by all factions. Having the regions begin their existence by contravening the constitution will inevitably create a more generalized habit of ignoring other pesky constitutional mandates like minority rights thus setting the stage for tit-for-tat discrimination which will only increase ethnic purity and intolerance.

Even if these migrations are peaceful, the end result will be even greater ethnic homogeneity. Those minorities who remain will lose political power because there will be little political competition due to overwhelming ethnic purity. As loss of rights for minorities accelerates, internal migration will increase which will turn a soft-partition into soft-ethnic cleansing where regions are defined by their ethnic purity, not a political philosophy or even Iraqi nationality. The story of India's partition should be a cautionary tale.

De-Federalization: The emerging Sunni militias will reinforce this trend but since they are proving to be the most effective indigenous peacekeeping forces, assuming the roles of the national army and national police, we support them. And our support is consistent with the constitution which in Art 117, Section 5 says, "The Regional Government shall be responsible for ... the establishment and organization of the internal security forces for the region such as police, security forces and guards of the region." The role of these regional military forces are more relevant to internal than is the national military as per Article 107, Section 2 of the constitution which says the central government must only formulate and execute "...national security policy, including creating and managing armed forces to secure the protection, and to guarantee the security of Iraq's borders and to defend Iraq." The national army's job is to secure the borders and repel invaders.

In the Philippines establishing regional forces was a major part of the potential appeal of federalism since the Muslim (Moro) insurgents could be federalized as national guard units creating a so-called "Moro Brigade" that would give a sense of security to the Muslim minorities in the Southern part of the country. But the Moros were minorities nearly everywhere in the country, so there was sense to it. The militias in Iraq represent the majority interests in their area and so have a potential dark side. Although the ethnic militias in Iraq are technically in the national chain-of-command, and so owe their paycheck to the center, the fact is that being purely sectarian they owe their allegiance to the Shieks and, through them, to the regional government. These are the armies of the future sectarian states and so will be the proxies (or opponents) of those with conflicting interests.

Democracy within a discrete political unit is competition between parties and individuals. But a federal democracy also stimulates competition between political units (states, provinces) where governors compete for national attention, for central government resources and for external investment. This is a contest that uses public policy innovation to gain advantage. In the US, states are public policy incubators driven by a consensus composed of various coalitions of economic, ethnic and political interests. Provinces in the "new Iraq" will be administrative units.

True federalism would offer Iraqis more than a pressure relief value. It could create intra-ethnic competition that could help trump inter-ethnic conflict. But by creating three ethnically pure, semi-sovereign regions the true benefits of federalism will be utterly lost, to the great harm of both Iraqis and Americans.


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6 Comments

Yeah you are right a hard partition would be better...
...Separation!

No Subject
American intentions in Iraq are now irrelevant. Iraqis are simply waiting for the U.S. to withdraw (which it must, having lost the war) and then will find their own solution.

And their own solution will probably be a divided state. There is no military in Iraq now that could dislodge the Kurdish state. It is also unlikely that central control could be enforced over an Iran-backed Shiite south.

Whatever, Downer
The Americans have not lost any war; only their idiotic Demon cratic party says they have. The war is far from over, and now that the Americans have remembered Lesson #1 learned from Vietnam--which is, "Citizens cannot be permitted to run wars" (I.E. bye bye Rumsfeld)--the war is that much more win-able.

Iraqis are just waiting for Americans to leave, eh? Get a life.

While it is certainly true that the Iraqis want to have their nation given over to them to run for themselves, the fact is that they are telling the United States to REMAIN for now (yes, the people, not just the government, which is saying the same thing) until they can get their s**t together.

Stop whining, Downer. Go back to your armchair and crack another beer and STFU.

re no subject; lost the war?
There is a difference between losing a war, because you've been defeated, and giving up on a war, and just leaving. In the same manner the US also didn't 'lose' the vietnam war in any normal military sense, but just gave up bothering to continue fighting with one arm tied behind its back.

More detail, please
Mr. Shaefer, would you mind illustrating where partition ends and federalism begins for a country like Iraq? I am, as they say, unclear on the concepts.

What 'lost the war' are you talking about?
The day they got rid of Saddam we WON the war! Getting rid of every terrorist may well be impossible. What could be the point of continuing to keep troops in Iraq anymore? Do we really need another Vietnam quagmire in Iraq? Bringing the troops home ASAP makes better sense that continuing to keep them in Iraq from many perspectives. It doesn't mean we lost because we withdraw troops when the objective for sending troops into Iraq has been accomplished. What else should they have to do in order to win the war that hasn't been done already? It's not cost effective to occupy Iraq indefinately waiting for them to adapt democracy when that isn't a part of their culture. Winners come home when the objective has been accomplished. No point in staying when their objective wasn't to conquer the place.

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