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Pundits, Partition, and National Unity
Must Iraq be Divided? Scholar Takes on Proposals to Break up the Country
By REIDAR VISSER 08/20/2007 1:56 PM ET
An expression of national unity or an anomalous outburst? Basra residents celebrate Iraq's Asian Football Cup championship victory on July 29.
Photo by Khaldoon Zubeir/Getty.
An expression of national unity or an anomalous outburst? Basra residents celebrate Iraq's Asian Football Cup championship victory on July 29.

For a long time, the idea of an externally imposed partition of Iraq was the preserve of a few relatively isolated but loud US politicians and pundits, including figures like Joseph Biden, Leslie Gelb and Peter Galbraith. More recently, however, certain academics have added their voice to the partitionist propaganda. These studies warrant close scrutiny, because their academic style and, in some cases, elaborate footnotes, make it very likely that they will achieve status as “serious pieces of research” among those who advocate partition.

It may perhaps be a little unfair to consider Amitai Etzioni’s article “Plan Z: A Community Based Security Plan for Iraq” in isolation from his recent book, Security First: For a Muscular, Moral Foreign Policy. The article is by necessity a lot more condensed than the book, and the author does not have the space available to elaborate on his overarching theoretical framework. Nevertheless, it is the article, rather than the book, that focuses exclusively on Iraq. Also, even if the format is a little bit cramped, one still expects stellar arguments and academic brilliance from someone whose biography states that he “was listed as one of the top 100 American intellectuals in Richard Posner’s book Public Intellectuals”.

With that point of departure, “Plan Z” is something of a disappointment. It promises a “communitarian, sociological approach” (Etzioni is the director of The Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at the George Washington University) but ends up as a collage of quotations whose sole common denominator is that they advocate a weakening of Baghdad’s powers. Some do so on the basis of the ethnic argument, which also appears to be closest to Etzioni’s own preference: his thesis is that “the sociological reality” of Iraq means that “the first and foremost loyalty of Iraqis (as well as Afghans, Kosovars and many others) is to their ethno-religious community and not to their nation”. But Etzioni also quotes writers who advocate decentralisation in Iraq on entirely different and non-ethnic platforms, such as David Romano, who has proposed “a regionally based federalist system” on a Canadian pattern. Etzioni’s way of reconciling this tension is to prescribe devolution based on the 18 existing governorates in Iraq, which he then “expects” to combine into larger ethno-religious entities. This would produce what he labels a “High-Devolution State”, a federation-like construction that “does not presume any particular institutional form”, i.e. both the United Kingdom and Canada may be examples of this species.

The assumed primacy of communitarian identities in Iraqi politics is never subjected to scrutiny as such, but rather presented as an axiom at the beginning of Etzioni’s article. Then follows a section called “detailed arguments” which is more of a pot-pourri of quotes from commentators of varying calibres and backgrounds. They include things like Leslie Gelb’s unsubstantiated exclamation that “the United States has worshipped at the altar of a unified yet unnatural Iraqi state”, and Marina Ottaway’s flawed assertion from late 2005 that the Shiites and Kurds had unanimously “accepted” the idea of ethnic federalism and therefore that the best US strategy would be to encourage the Sunnis to follow suit. (In fact, parliamentary voting patterns and the political debate surrounding the law for implementing federalism in October 2006 demonstrated clearly that resistance to ethnic federalism was almost as widespread among Shiites as among Sunnis.)

This is followed in “historical arguments” by even more misleading matter, such as the reference to “Great Britain’s folly of combining into one state three different tribes”, and, above all, the quotation from Ivan Eland that “these three provinces had never been united politically, had no feeling of collective nationality, and contained three different ethnic groups subdivided by tribal loyalties”. Never united politically? In fact, Basra and Baghdad were unified as a single charge in the intervals 1880–1884, 1863–1875, from the 1760s to 1850, from around 1705 to 1720, in the 1670s, as well as in periods before the Ottoman conquest in 1534 – and in many of these periods, Mosul was also included, de jure or de facto. But partitionists have no appetite for these details; they choose instead to highlight the thirty years of administrative differentiation between 1884 and 1914 as decisive proof of the “artificiality” of unitary rule after the First World War. Similarly, the claim that the three vilayets had any particular individual sectarian colouring in the intervals when they did in fact enjoy a measure of autonomy is another recurrent fallacy among those who prefer a “macro” (or perhaps, lazy?) approach to Iraqi history. True, Basra was Shiite-dominated in terms of demography, especially from the nineteenth century onwards, but Baghdad had an even larger Shiite population as well as all the Shiite holy cities, and Mosul was essentially mixed.

Perhaps the most problematic portion of Etzioni’s article is the section that asserts, “Federalism and Regional Autonomy Are Compatible with Iraq’s Constitution”. Of course, federalism is part of the Iraqi constitution. But where Etzioni and many partitionists with him get it wrong is the character of the federalism laid down in the Iraqi constitution of 2005. First and foremost, federalism south of Kurdistan is foreshadowed in the Iraqi charter as an optional arrangement, and, if chosen, its building blocks will be the existing governorates, which can become federal entities in their own right, or may join with other governorates. On the other hand, under the constitution, ethnicities and Etzioni’s “communities” will have no role in demarcating the federal units. If they are so eager to stay true to the Iraqi constitution writers like Etzioni should at least openly admit that there is absolutely no imperative for the comprehensive federalisation of all of Iraq in the document that was adopted back in 2005. (The relevance of a textualist approach to the Iraqi charter can of course be debated given that many Iraqis are now more interested in constitutional reform that would actually strengthen the centre, but several partitionists are at pains to pose as “constitutionalists” and therefore should at least be faithful to the document they refer to.) In fact, many Iraqi politicians, including Shiite parliamentarians, believe that the complicated rules for forming federal regions mean that in the future only one or maximum two small uni-governorate entities (Basra and possibly Najaf) will develop into full-blown federal units on the Kurdistan pattern, with the remaining 13 governorates staying within a unitary state framework. To partitionists, this is a considerable quandary. If they wish to adhere to the Iraqi constitution, then, by all means, they should feel free to do so: just sit back and relax because no external intervention in the demarcation of federal units is needed! But then again in that case their “plan” would not be a plan.

In this regard, Edward P. Joseph and Michael E. O’Hanlon are refreshing in that they explain upfront what they want: to challenge the Iraqi constitution. In contrast to the examples of Etzioni, Biden and Gelb, what these two writers refer to as a “plan” is in fact a plan.

But what a plan! In “The Case for Soft Partition in Iraq” Joseph and O’Hanlon plunge into the modalities of bringing about “the organised movement of two to five million Iraqis”, no less, in order to create a decentralised state based on three ethnic communities. There is no question about the number – it has to be three. In fact, the authors are deeply worried that the Iraqi constitution with its protection of Baghdad as a separate entity (constitutionally, the Iraqi capital is not allowed to become part of larger federal regions) may create problems with regard to the consistent implementation of their own ethnic logic; they therefore demand that the capital region be partitioned too – with the Tigris river recommended as the most suitable partition line. The absence of popular support among Iraqis (they themselves acknowledge that “Sunni and Shiite Arabs have traditionally opposed partition, hard or soft”) does not seem to deter them at all; instead they choose to focus on the “comparable” example of Bosnia-Herzegovina, “where one of us worked extensively.”

Brookings analyst Michael O'Hanlon in 2004.
Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images.
Brookings analyst Michael O'Hanlon in 2004.
On pages 9 to 11, Joseph and O’Hanlon (who in 2006 complained loudly in the US press after having been marginalised in the sessions of the Iraq Study Group) enumerate in greater detail the supporters of their plan. They appear to be, Joseph, O’Hanlon, most Kurds, and Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, a Shiite politician. The authors are too modest: they could have added al-Qaida, which would welcome this kind of federation as a permanent scar on Iraq that would prove to the whole world how “Western crusaders are intent on dividing the Muslims”, as well as Iran, which consulted closely with Hakim before he launched his campaign for a Shiite federal entity in the summer of 2005 and prior to the intensification of it in August 2006 – and which would rival Saudi Arabia as holder of the world’s largest oil reserves if it were able to exercise control over the Basra fields. At any rate, to their credit, the authors readily admit that only a minority among the Shiites of Iraq are in favour of federalism based on ethnicity. In fact, these days, even long-time defenders of the idea of a Shiite federal entity such as the Hakim family seem to speak with different voices on federalism, with Ammar al-Hakim now apparently more enthusiastic than his father Abd al-Aziz and other close associates.

But Joseph and O’Hanlon cannot entirely resist the temptation to construe the Iraqis as closet partitionists. In so doing they also reiterate several common misconceptions about Iraqi politics. First and foremost, this relates to the interpretation of sectarian voting in the parliamentary elections of 2005 as votes “for separation” (p. 1, repeated on p. 8). That is simply disingenuous, because no political parties in those campaigns had any agenda of dividing the Iraqis according to sect and ethnicity. To struggle for primacy within an existing unitary polity and to advocate the territorial devolution of that polity on a separative basis are two very different things. Similarly, Joseph and O’Hanlon elsewhere (p. ix) talk of “an Iraq ruled from Baghdad” as a possible future “symbolic threat to Shiite Arabs” – a colossal denial of the continued centrality of Baghdad to Shiite ambitions, which often simply consist of a desire to maintain the existing state framework but without the sectarian discrimination of the past. And on p. 9, where the two authors refer to the six-month deadline in the 2005 constitution for creating federalisation procedures, they demonstrate their level of detachment from current Iraqi political debate more generally. Why do they not instead focus on the actual procedures for implementing that were adopted in October 2006, which fulfilled the constitutional provision, and which made it superfluous?

What then follows in the section on “Implementing Soft Partition” should have come with some kind of warning to the reader. Here, using cool academic language, the authors review the nuts and bolts of relocating somewhere between 2 and 5 million Iraqis in order to create new ethnic federal entities. Snippets from this part of the report probably speak best for themselves: “we advocate where possible dividing major cities along natural boundaries” (p. 16); “on the actual day of the relocation operation, Iraqi and US-led coalition forces would deploy in sufficient numbers to look for snipers, cover the flanks of the civilian convoys, inspect suspicious vehicles for explosives and conduct similar tasks” (p. 17); and finally, on p. 24, “this control system would place some burdens on Iraq’s internal trade and other aspects of its economy. It would complicate the efforts of individuals to cross from one region to another to visit family and friends. For the most part these burdens would be bearable. For individuals or businesses that need to make frequent crossings across Iraq’s new internal borders, or those willing to pay for the privilege, an EZ pass system might be developed to expedite movements for those with important and regular business to conduct.”

Perhaps none of this should come as a surprise in a report in which the 1947 partition of India is criticised not for the principle of division as such but for its poor technical execution (p. 19). But even those who may choose to accept the authors’ ideas about the “inevitability” of an Iraqi partition will find it hard to be persuaded by some of the subsequent details considering implementation. For example, the Arab League (probably one of the strongest opponents of Iraqi partition in the world) is identified as a possible candidate for a “lead role” in the partition process (p. 16). And on p. 28 Joseph and O’Hanlon present their scenario of how regional players supposedly would join in to support the new decentralised polity: “Sunni-majority states such as Morocco and Jordan and Saudi Arabia providing help for the Sunni Arab region, the United States helping the Kurds”, and, wait for it, “a combined international mission working with the Shiites”. Or could it just possibly happen that a certain neighbour to the east might wish to try to exercise a degree of influence in the Shiistan defined by O’Hanlon and Joseph?

What all these writers overlook is the survival of Iraq as a territorial concept and as a frame of reference for aspirations of national unity. Those analysts who emphasise the continued existence of Iraqi nationalism among the population at large are often criticised because these ideals are not reflected at the elite level anymore. But that is just a testament to the growing gap between politicians and masses in Iraq, perhaps greater now than ever after the recent further narrowing of the Maliki governing coalition to include just two Shiite Islamist parties in addition to the Kurds. (Farcically, the current government negotiations are being reported in the Western press as a “conflict between Shiites and Sunnis”, even though the real political cleavage is between an ever more cliquish group of “moderate” sectarians who are on talking terms with Washington, and opposition Iraqi nationalists – Shiites and Sunnis – who are being ignored by the Americans.) For example, the celebration of Iraq’s recent football victory in the Asia Cup proved the continued strength of Iraqi unity as a widespread ideal among ordinary Iraqis and constitutes a formidable anomaly to those sharing the analytical lenses of O’Hanlon, Joseph and Etzioni.

But in general, this popular dimension is only rarely reflected in media reports from Iraq, which instead tend to focus on propaganda by sectarian political parties that have good communications skills and are able to spin small gatherings of their diehard supporters as “massive demonstrations”. The problem is highlighted by these authors themselves: Joseph and O’Hanlon assert (p. 8) that there is “strong evidence” that “violence is steadily eroding national unity” – with a footnote to a short article by American journalist Sabrina Tavernise! Instead of engaging in this kind of contrived referencing they and other partitionists should take a long look at their own arguments, deal honestly with their most glaring denials of Iraqi facts (ranging from the mameluke government of Baghdad in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century to the cross-sectarian support seen in April 2007 for Shadha Hassun, the Iraqi contestant in the Arab “Star Academy”), and then ask whether there is anything left at all. The US invasion of Iraq was based on lies; it would do irreparable damage to the entire Middle East as well as American interests in the region if also the mechanics of withdrawal should be informed by fabricated evidence.

See also related interview in The New York Times.

Reidar Visser is a research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. His latest book is Basra, the Failed Gulf State: Separatism and Nationalism in Southern Iraq. Many of his writings on the question of federalism and decentralization in Iraq are available at the website

This article originally appeared at Republished with permission.


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