Iraq Partition and an International Settlement

The last, remaining resort

Since the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia established the principle of the sovereignty of states and non-intervention of one state in the internal affairs of another, there has been international consensus around the idea of the nation state. Notwithstanding Versailles and the dismemberment of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the idea of immutable borders has persisted. As recently as 1975 the Helsinki Final Act discouraged secessions (See footnote about the Helsinki Final Act.)

But the international community now confronts a number of secessionist causes that make a re-think necessary: Kosovo, South Ossetia, Darfur and, most importantly, the three main ethnic components of Iraq. I would argue that where civil conflict has reached a point where compromise is unlikely and where a permanent foreign troop presence is needed to keep the sides apart, then there should be controlled separation under the auspices of the United Nations to prevent further bloodshed.

It is my opinion that the controlled partition of Iraq is now an international priority. By trying to keep Iraq together the US is signing an open-ended commitment to permanent occupation, the only return being body bags.

“Iraq as we have constituted it is ungovernable,” said Winston Churchill in 1922. Iraq was a patched up country created by the British as a bulwark against the Bolshevik Red Army, threatening at the time from the north. Mesopotamian oil was not to fall into the hands of Lenin. Despite many well-meaning attempts to introduce modern, democratic institutions and resolve tribal rivalries, the country seemed to need an authoritarian government, and it duly got it.

Notwithstanding the number of people being trotted out to tell us that the “surge” is a success, it can in fact only be a passing political “get-out-of-jail” card for the Bush regime, not a long-term solution to the future of Iraq. The only options to hold Iraq together are either long-term American military occupation or the installation of another strong-man. Any other option put forward appears to be wishful thinking.

The Sunni leaders certainly don´t want a strong-man, who certainly would be Shia. The Shia leaders want oil and a Shia government, united against their erstwhile oppressors. Why else have Shia militias been enforcing a policy of religious factional cleansing? Meanwhile, the Kurd leaders sensibly want to maintain their current effective autonomy under the umbrella of Iraq. Their real goal — an independent Kurdistan — would result in war with Turkey, and maybe Iran as well. But the Kurds have no deep loyalty to this tacked-together Iraqi entity that has brought them so much grief.

So why is the United States so desperately trying to keep together this failed state that nobody else particularly wants? For the population at large, there is the fear of the unintended consequences of break-up (not to be ignored!). For the US there is the fear that the Emperor will be shown to have no visible clothes. The loss of prestige would be devastating to the Republicans, they fear. The fact is, however, that the world already perceives the Iraq war to be a defeat for the Americans. Before setting out a dramatic way in which the US could recover its lost prestige and reputation, let us rehearse the arguments against a three-way split of Iraq between a Shia south, a Kurdish north and a Sunni West, conducted in as controlled a way as possible while the US troops are still there to stop the worst excesses, and what credence to give them:

Argument 1: We Americans have done our best to restore security, but the Iraqis have not 'stepped up to the plate' to prevent violence. If they prefer civil war, that is their choice. We should withdraw, and certainly should not be involved in managing partition.

The US entered Iraq un-invited (as Prince Turki al Faisal, Saudi Ambassador to Washington commented in October 2006) and has no business leaving it uninvited, without stabilizing the country. The results of full-blown civil war would be horrendous and the refugee problem huge. It would be naive to imagine that Iraq can be made a stable democracy and a viable nation state under existing circumstances. This is not the United States or Britain, where the civil wars were about balance of power, not ethnicity or religion. The country would end up divided into its three constituent parts in any case, after a civil war lasting, who knows, five years and costing a further unknown number of lives. We should fulfill our moral obligation to Iraqis by separating the communities in a controlled way that saves lives and the additional bitterness provoked by prolonged internecine strife.

The American administration is keen to see the Iraq oil industry privatized in favor of the international oil companies (see below). The oil companies will need the American troops to remain in their 10 permanent bases to afford them protection. Total withdrawal of US troops is a non-starter, although the politicians are careful not to say so. Will the Americans cower in these bases during the mayhem of civil war, or be drawn in again to maintain order? Almost certainly the latter. It makes more sense to re-order Iraq now and try to mitigate the violence.

Argument 2: A controlled break-up is impractical. Baghdad, with a population of 4.8 million (estimate in 2000) is the largest Iraqi city for all communities - Shias, Sunnis and Kurds. There is too much intermingling.

“Cleansing” might be a vile concept, but in reality it is already happening. An estimated 2 million people have left the country — 8% of the pre-war population. A big proportion of these are middle class and they have gone to Jordan (the border has recently been closed) and Syria, others to Dubai and Europe. Some five hundred active supporters of US policy, such as translators, have been dribbling into the US, although treated with suspicion, according to the New Yorker magazine. Another 1.7 million have moved internally into ethnically safe areas. Fifty thousand Iraqis flee their homes every month. At least with the American forces on the spot, there is some chance of preventing massacre. Indian partition was brutal because the British had minimal troop presence in that vast country. Iraq is different. Nicosia was partitioned straight down the middle, patrolled by the United Nations. This (undesirable) system has worked for decades. We need a “Green Line”(the so-called line of demarcation between Greeks and Turks in Cyprus) in Iraq´s cities and the building of new towns and new homes for the displaced.

Argument 3: It's better to increase the effectiveness of the Iraqi army and police force, and support the elected “democratic” government, than to venture into the unknown and dangerous territory of partition.

This policy has been tried and has failed. The police and army are sectarian, owing allegiance to tribes and religious sects. Maliki is isolated and his ministers are thought to be both corrupt and dependent on the US. The only reliable intermediaries are the Kurds, who are unacceptable to the Shias and Sunnis. There is pervasive mutual incomprehension. The US has had to import Jordanians and even train Georgians as interpreters - - neither understand the local culture. The Americans are as isolated as the Iraqi government. American “experts” cannot go out side the Green Zone in any safety and cannot communicate if they get there. They have little credibility. The current policy is bankrupt. At one time Iraq had the institutions of democracy, put there by the British. Saddam destroyed them. Bush has failed to restore them. There is no basis or tradition of democracy. To say otherwise is pie in the sky.

Argument 4: Partition is an admission of US failure.

The war is already a failure. The Emperor took off his own clothes. The United States has not been so un-influential since the self-inflicted wound of its own Civil War.

Argument 5: Al Qaeda would be the beneficiary of a controlled break-up.

This is simply nonsense. The Sunnis no more want uncontrollable religious fanatics and killers among them than Americans do. Yes, they have used and tolerated them for short term ends, but given their own territory and government, and a fair share of the oil revenues, they would turn on the foreigners. The last thing the elite, the sheiks and tribal leaders want is an Al Qaeda presence.

Argument 6: It would be more difficult to distribute oil revenue fairly in a partitioned Iraq.

The recent oil sharing agreement gives the lie to this argument. The agreement allows for:

1. Effective privatization of Iraqi oil. Most Middle East oil is nationalized.
2. Two-thirds of known oil reserves to be developed by multinational oil companies under contracts lasting for 15-20 years. Big Oil will have seats on the new Federal Oil and Gas Council, where they themselves could help decide policy on contracts.
3. Foreign oil companies will have first claim on the revenue from any oil they help extract from the country´s reserves, estimated at 115 billion barrels.
4. The oil companies can repatriate all profits with tax and without the need to re-invest. Nor do they need to employ Iraqis or put out sub-contracts to Iraqi firms.
5. Contracts are to be allowed between Iraq´s individual regions and foreign oil companies.
6. The oil companies have the right to set rates of production for each field.
7. Any disagreements have to be settled in Paris or Geneva.

For fuller details of this crucial law go to Iraqi Hydrocarbons Law 2007

This legislation implicitly recognizes the de facto break-up of Iraq into “oil regions”, potentially setting region against region. So if the administration understands what it has done, the main source of revenue for any Iraqi government or governments, that is oil, has already been arranged around the break-up of the country. This has been done without the participation of Iraq´s parliament, trade unions or local oil experts and bears out the worst fear of Iraqis. It means that the ten bases being built by the Americans are there to protect the oil companies, and that removal of American forces is a non-starter.

Argument 7: Partition would result in incursions and constant low-level warfare.

The close parallel is Palestine. One of the many problems there is the partiality of the US to one side of the conflict and unwillingness to be a genuine partner for peace. Where you get huge disparities in military and industrial power between opposing parties, the dispossessed will use any weapon to hand to resolve their sense of injustice. This can be avoided in Iraq, but it needs a new approach from the outside powers.

Argument 8: Turkey would not tolerate Kurdish independence. The fiction of “Iraq” must be maintained.

This is a valid objection, and requires the special treatment of Kurdistan by international agreement. Under my proposals, Kurdistan should become a “U.N Protected Territory” formally prohibited from fomenting separatist tendencies in Turkey, Syria or Iran, its neighbors undertaking not to meddle in its affairs. See below.

Argument 9: The Middle East would be faced with a group of sullen, defeated Sunnis, a huge refugee problem, and possibly worse terrorism.

The UN could propose the possibility of a union of Sunni Syrians and Sunni Iraqis in a Sunni homeland. But in any case resettlement and development of the Sunni region would have to be partly paid for by the Saudis, the Gulf States and other international agencies. If, as I have maintained, partition is going to happen anyway, the manage- ment of it in an agreed way has to be better than letting it happen ad hoc. See below.

Argument 10: Saudi Arabia and Kuwait will not tolerate a fundamentalist or Iranian-dominated Shia state next door.

There is a disputed line in the sand between Shia Iraq and Kuwait, as the world discovered in the first Gulf war. The Saudis and Kuwaitis fear Iran, too, and the only way to moderate the influence of Iran is with a negotiated settlement that addresses the insecurities of all parties. The Gulf border disputes need to be settled for good.

A comprehensive International Settlement

It is my argument that the United States could recover some of its lost prestige if it sponsored and organized a comprehensive Middle East settlement, the subjects for discussion being along the following lines:

1. Iraq: The component parts of Iraq to be recognized as new entities, under their own governments, guaranteed by the U.S, E.U, Russia, China and India, and policed by United Nations troops at borders and on the “green lines” between the hostile communities in Baghdad, where they continue to exist. Phased removal of American personnel and bases.

A new American government should scrap the current Iraqi hydrocarbons law and negotiate one that allows the multinational oil companies to obtain Iraqi oil at a rate that covers modernization and exploration but gives the Iraqi governments a right to tax the proceeds of oil, to insist on a minimum content in terms of goods and services bought from Iraqi companies and to have a say in contracts and production levels. I would propose that the share of revenues is based on the proportion of the religious communities estimated in the year 2000. Otherwise, the likelihood of renewed fighting over the division of the spoils is high, which is why this issue has to be part of a comprehensive settlement.

2. Sunnis: Consideration at least to be given to the incorporation of the Iraqi Sunnis, with their territory, into Syria, in order to counter-balance Iran. This could be agreed (or not) by local plebiscite in Sunni areas. International financial help for the new Iraqi Sunni economy, and a fair share of the Iraqi oil, based upon population estimates of 2000 (Shia 60-65%, Sunni 31-36%, Kurds 15- 20%. The baseline year is important, because so many Sunnis have had to leave the country, and the current population figures are anyone´s guess).

3. Kurdistan: The borders of Kurdistan to be guaranteed, as above, by the international community. In return for a share of the Kirkuk oil, the Kurds would be required to comprehensively reject ideas of a Greater Kurdistan and close their borders to all agitators to this effect.

4. Israel/Palestine: A definitive solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to be finally undertaken, based on the Geneva Accords (1967 borders, with no right of return, the recognition of Israel, and the creation of a viable state of Palestine, with no settlements on the West Bank or Golan Heights). International guarantee of Israeli borders. No Middle East settlement is possible unless this conflict is addressed. Arrangements to be made between Israel and its neighbors about demilitarized zones, water-sharing, among other issues.

5. Syria: Detente. Syria would break ties with the radical Palestinian groups, and help in the stabilization of Iraq under the new arrangements. In return it would recover the territories lost in 1967 and receive financial help with the rebuilding of the economy and the Iraqi refugees. Consideration to be given to the idea of a corridor to the Mediterranean between Israel and Lebanon to give Syria access to the sea, (Lebanon was part of Syria until 1926). This corridor would act as a buffer zone between Israel and Lebanon. Syria would sign a treaty of non- interference in Lebanon, continue the withdrawal of forces, as per the Ta´if agreement and help transform Hizbollah into a politics-only party.

6. Lebanon: Free elections in Lebanon without US/Israeli interference. A resulting Hizbollah government would be offered international financial assistance in re-building the country in return for a peace treaty with Israel, a non-interference agreement with Syria, and international assistance to restore Lebanon after the Israeli attack in 2006.

7. Iran: Detente. Iran has a strong sense of being bullied by the outside world. Not only did Russia seize Armenia, Azerbaijan and part of Georgia in the 19th century, but at different times Iran has lost Bahrain and part of Afghanistan, seen its premier, Mossadeq, overthrown, an alien Shah installed, and chemical warfare weapons sold to its great enemy, Iraq, with whom it was fighting a war. Meanwhile it has a powerful US fleet breathing down its neck in the Gulf. the US “cordon sanitaire” around Iran is seen a threat.

The United States agrees to full re-establishment of relations and agrees to help Iran in fighting a particularly difficult problem: heroin from Afghanistan. The US agrees to the Iranian development of peaceful atomic energy and Iran gives up development of the bomb in return for international guarantees by US, Russia, China, Pakistan, Israel and India (the nuclear powers). Iran agrees to recognize Israel and stop funding anti-Israeli operations.

The US agrees to offset Russian influence by arranging inward investment in the stalling oil production, agrees to remove sanctions and its block on membership in the WTO and Gulf Cooperation Council.

8. Jordan: financial assistance for the Iraq refugees and resettlement of Palestinians. Recognition of Israel and Palestine. Resolution of outstanding issues with Israel.

9. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia; US guarantee of the borders of Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and the acceptance of any Sunni refugees who wish to enter either country. An agreement offers the region much-needed security.

10. Massive aid project, on the lines of the Marshall Plan to create a modern education system in the Middle East.

11. General regional agreement to combat al Queda and all terrorist activity.

12. Free trade zone to be discussed, among other things encouraging Arab countries to bid for Iraqi and Lebanese reconstruction.

The likelihood of such a settlement even being considered under the current American Administration is nil. However, an enlightened new President could make history by abandoning the failed policies of the past and sitting down with the protagonist to talk. If it succeeded, this new president would go down as the greatest statesman since Winston Churchill.

Footnote: The Helsinki Final Act: The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, formed in 1972 to improve East-West dialogue, produced a document in 1975 which bound the participating countries , including the US and EU, to respect the sovereignty of other states, renounce the use of force in settling disputes, adopt policies of peaceful negotiation with, and non-intervention in, the affairs of members, respect human rights, and acknowledge both the territorial integrity of states and the inviolability of their frontiers.


Washington 3/22/07
Dow Jones Newswires 12/2/06
Iraq Study Group report Section II.B.5
Mother — Washington Dispatch 3/01/2007, James Ridgeway
International Crisis Group: Middle East Report No.23 2/14/2007
Brown Journal of World Affairs (Winter/Spring 2003)
Fouad Al-Amir on 2/20/07

27 March 2007