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The triple threat of a divided Iraq

September 24, 2006|W. Robert Pearson | W. ROBERT PEARSON was U.S. ambassador to Turkey from 2000 to 2003.

PROMINENT EXPERTS have begun to argue that dividing Iraq into three parts -- Sunni, Shiite and Kurd -- is more viable than trying to build a single, central Iraqi state. They reason that the only solution to sectarian violence is for Sunnis and Shiites to live apart. The Kurds, they argue, have demonstrated their ability to live autonomously since 1990. Nothing else has worked, so why not let the pieces fall where they may? But this is not a plan; it is a destabilizing default strategy.

Thoughtful observers, such as Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, have argued for a federated Iraqi with near-statehood status for the three regions and an agreement on dividing the oil money. If such a deal could be struck, and if the breakup could be halted there, Iraq might see greater stability. But the more likely outcome is a loose federation plagued by conflict, with one or more parties trying to win full independence. Confederation could prove a Pandora's box for the U.S. and the region.

Dividing Iraq would invite Tehran to make even more mischief within the Iraqi Shiite community, especially to further exploit the rivalry between the two major clerics, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani and Muqtada Sadr. If the Shiite areas in southern and eastern Iraq fell under Iranian influence, would Tehran not be tempted to turn its attention to the Sunnis in the west and the Kurds in the north? How would the global energy situation be affected if Iran were to gain influence over a rump Shiite state as its protector? How would neighboring Sunni states -- Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- react? Would Hezbollah, Iran's proxy against Israel, not feel strengthened in Lebanon?

All the countries in the region with sizable Kurdish populations would oppose the creation of an independent Kurdish state, fearing territorial claims and divided loyalties among their ethnic Kurds. Turkey worries most of all. U.S. acquiescence in an independent Kurdistan would confirm the Turks' worst fears about American engagement in Iraq. Turkey has the largest Kurdish population in the Middle East -- four to five times greater than that in northern Iraq. The Turks fear that an independent Kurdistan on former Iraqi territory would agitate to include Turkish Kurds. It was just in 1999 that Turkey brought to a close a 20-year battle with its Kurdish insurgency in which more than 30,000 people died. And since the beginning of the Iraq war, Turkey has watched the same insurgency renew a guerrilla campaign. Meanwhile, its decision not to allow the U.S. to launch a northern front to invade Iraq via Turkey cost Ankara both its influence in northern Iraq and any chance to cooperate with the U.S. in shaping postwar Iraq.

Although many Americans rightly praise Iraqi Kurds as allies who helped us in the 2003 war, the U.S. should think twice about giving security guarantees to an independent Kurdistan. The Iraqi province of Kurdistan has no access to the sea and is wholly dependent on its neighbors for the export and import of goods, including the oil it wants to control. Is the U.S. willing to have a permanent military presence in an independent Kurdistan, putting our troops at risk for no strategic benefit?

Finally, Kurds might ask themselves whether they really want full independence. With no powerful protector in the region, they would have to stand alone among unfriendly neighbors. In addition, the Kurds' current unity masks deep rivalries between two major factions, each possessing independent armies. And they aren't alone in the northern province. The Turkmens will continue to look to Ankara for support. Disputes continue with the Iraqi Arabs, who for years were sent north by Saddam Hussein to displace local Kurds. Add the struggle for control of Kirkuk's oil fields to the mix and the ethnic and political tensions rise further. Civil wars have erupted over less. Shiites and Sunnis won't support an independent Kurdish state unless it shares the Kirkuk fields. Would Kirkuk then be internationalized? The history of internationalized cities is not a happy one.

An Iraqi split might seem seductive, but those who are tempted might recall Horace Greeley's advice in 1861 to deal with the South by letting the "erring sisters depart in peace." Greeley later changed his mind and urged the North to fight to preserve the Union.

As hard as it is to imagine, the consequences of a divided Iraq could be even worse than the woes of today. The United States should use whatever influence it has in Iraq, and in the region, to foster a central government in Baghdad capable of moving the country toward stability through negotiation among the contending parties -- whatever we may think of their arrangements. That would be the best protection -- under the circumstances -- for all Iraqis.

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