Partition of Iraq - the worst alternative, except for all the others?

**John Mace said in the “Webb Is Toast” thread that:

I’ve heard this a lot in recent months, from a variety of speakers, including experts like Juan Cole.

But it doesn’t make any sense to me.

It’s true that things in Iraq can get a lot worse. More than that, no matter what we do, things are bound to get worse before they get better - and getting better may be a long way off.

But ISTM that while there’s no faction capable of ruling Iraq, it’s quite possible that a Sunni government might be able to establish a rough monopoly on violence in the Sunni part of Iraq, and a Shi’ite government might be able to do the same in the Shi’ite portion, as the Kurdish government of Iraqi Kurdistan has already done in the north.

There would undoubtedly be violence of two types during and in the wake of a partition:

  1. fighting between the three main Iraqi factions to determine the borders of the three parts of Iraq; and
  2. the forcible eviction of Sunnis from Shi’ite Iraq and vice versa.

And there would likely be an armed component to the struggles for power within each of the Sunni and Shi’ite portions of Iraq. My hope is that those struggles might at least resolve themselves fairly quickly, while a struggle for power over the whole of Iraq won’t, because nobody is anywhere remotely close to being able to control Iraq entire.

Due to that inability of any faction, or national unity government, to control Iraq as a whole, it’s hard to see that partition’s going to be worse for Iraq than where Iraq is headed now, which is to say a Hobbesian war of all against all, as power devolves towards smaller, more local militias.

For the most part, I’d like to skip the question of whether Iraq is ours to partition, and just deal with the question of partition itself. For one thing, some of the impetus towards de facto partition is coming from Kurds and Shi’ites, and like it or not, we’ll eventually be in the position of having to take sides on the question of whether such partition is a good idea, and whether the alternative should be either no partition, or a more fair partition. And for another, Iraq wasn’t ours to occupy to begin with. Like it or not, we’re in the middle of their politics, and have to figure out the best way to extricate ourselves with the least amount of further harm to the Iraqi people.

I’m not sure partition would not be the ugliest of all the scenarios. The Sunnis, who have the most to lose, would fight the hardest. Ethnic cleansing within the Shi’ite and Sunni areas would be a given. There would be a battle royal over ownership of Kirkuk. The Shi’ites would be forced even further into the arms of Iran. For the U.S., so long as we’re still there, where do we turn? What side do we choose?

That partition looks like an attractive option at all speaks volumes about the impossibility of the situation there.

How would we go about enforcing partion? Will we have American troops manning border border posts along lines drawn in Washington? What will we do when the Iraqis object to the placement of these lines?

I simply can’t skip the question of whether Iraq is ours to partition. Let the Iraqis decide.

Partition is usually the last action of colonial powers, departing with blood on their hands. Then they bemoan the uncivilised behavior of those they tried to hard to “help.”

I think the plan that Biden introduced back in May, the splitting of Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions that are administered by a central government, is better than straight partition.

The details are here:

It worked very well over here :wink:

It can also be a decision made (with or without bloodshed) in a multi-ethnic country, like the former Czechoslovakia, Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. But (as in those cases), I agree that it should be a decision of the locals, not of the US.

Ok…lets start from some kind of base here. Would the Iraqi’s go for it? I would say…no way in hell. Oh, the Kurds would jump at the chance…but they would want to control the North (where a lot of the oil fields are). And of course, this would completely piss off Turkey in the process, not to mention that the Shi’ites and Sunni would be glancing at those oil fields in a rather pissed off manner.

But the Kurds don’t make up a majority…or even the largest minority. So…would the Shi’ites go for this plan? I’d say (again)…no way in hell. They want the whole burrito, not one little piece of it. We’d have to impose partition on Iraq…through force of arms.

How about the Sunni? Would they go for this plan? I’d say…well, I think you get it by now. No, they wouldn’t go for it either IMHO. Why should they? They held the whip hand for decades, and now not only would they be relegated to second fiddle…they’d be in control of a large swath of oil free desert. Yeah…THAT sounds like a good plan.

Of course, this all glosses over how you would partition Iraq in the first place. Where would the borders be. What would happen to the people caught on the wrong side of the border? What about the myriad OTHER smaller religious sects and tribes scattered throughout the land?

We would have to impose partition on the Iraqi’s through force of arms, unless the Iraqi’s are on board with cutting up Iraq into sectarian sections (anyone got any proof this is the case?)…and then we’d need to stay there until the 3 partitioned lands could build up sufficient military force to actually control those territories. And in the end, after we pulled out, what are the prospects that the Shi’ite partition, with its higher population and probably with support from Iran, would honor those imposed partition borders??

Every time I hear this wonderful partition plan, I think of our Euro buddies who started this mess by imposing artificial borders on the po’ igno’rant natives. How did that work out…? And now we (well, some of us) want to try it again. I’m not seeing how the US attempting to do this would be markedly successful. I think this time, not being as ruthless as our Euro buddies once were, we are apt to find out that things CAN actually get worse, even in as fucked up a situation as Iraq currently is.

JMHO of the wonderful partition plan…


Partition, either formal or de facto, became virtually inevitable the moment our troops entered Iraq with the intent of overthrowing the government.

The reality is that Iraq has already been partitioned (it’s actually against the law to display the Iraqi flag in the Kurdish sector) and ethnic cleansing is taking place at a rapid pace. Foreign powers (especially Iran) have jockeyed themselves into places of great influence by supporting one faction or another. The exact borders have yet to be decided and the facade of a national government persists, but the die has been cast. Humpty Dumpty has fallen if you will. Even Talabani, who heads the federal government upon which the Bush administration has bet everything, has been looking like an increasingly sectarian figure recently, favoring Shiites at seemingly every turn.

Talabani is a Kurd.

That’s one of my major issues with plans to partition Iraq-- it isn’t ours to partition. And I think it matters how the partition comes about-- if it’s something imposed from the outside, it’s going to be fought no matter what.

I think what Iraq needs a benevolent strangman to pull the country together and gradually work towards democracy. Before the invasion began I always thought that was the best outcome that could be expected, and I still think that’s what will happen, but probably not til after we leave.

The Sunni part of a partitioned Iraq would become a breeding ground for al Qaeda and would be like creating another Palestinian terrirory. Without oil, they’ve got nothing.

Yep. Placed in power by the heavily Shiite government.

Iraq isn’t ours to break up, but it’s doing a bang-up job of it on its own. It also isn’t ours to hold together against its will.

Bear in mind that Iraq is itself a creation of arbitrary British partition. At least the way it’s breaking up today makes some sense.

Partition sucks. It will leave a (likely impoverished) Sunni area where AQ will likely be able to operate and a Shiite area closely tied to Iran. Other Sunni nations will be horrified by the expansion of Shiite power. Turkey’s reaction to Kurdistan will not be positive either. Bad, bad, bad.

Yet positive alternatives to this do not present themselves. Bad is all that’s on the table now, though Bush is still claiming we will have total victory - whatever that means.

Good idea, this war.

Tony Snow Today

Unless we ‘fix it’ we lose. Anything less is defeat, or at least a stain on the Bush Legacy.

All that’s already happening.

I can’t envision a way around this.

I disagree. The Shi’ites need Iran a lot more if they’re sharing a country with Sunnis. If they’ve got control of their own country, they need the Iranians a lot less.

So far, we’ve effectively chosen the Kurds and Shi’ites. Like it or not, practically everything we do there favors one faction or another.

True dat.

We wouldn’t; we can’t. Any lines we played a part in either drawing or merely approving would have to roughly coincide with where the people live, so that the factions could defend their territories themselves.

What we would have to enforce would be terms of disengagement. Sunnis in Shi’ite territory, Shi’ites in Sunni territory, and Kurds in Arab territory would need our protection to safely get to their group’s permanent territory. And there’d effectively be a gigantic house swap going on, so we’d have to keep people from demolishing their houses as they left, since refugees from other parts of Iraq would need to move into those houses.

FWIW, this is already unofficially happening in parts of Iraq, only without any quid pro quo aspect. For instance, Sunnis are ethnically cleansing the western part of Baghdad, and moving Sunnis into houses they’ve forced Shi’ites out of as they work their way east towards central Baghdad. If this is happening anyway, it would be better if the process were tamed, so that families had time to prepare to leave, and had at least the likelihood of somewhere to go.

The Kurds have already made a clear decision for effective partition. The Shi’ites want the best of both worlds - they want southern Iraq to be theirs, without giving up the opportunity to rule over the Sunnis in the country as a whole. Not that they can make that stick.

If we continue the current course, we can bemoan the uncivilized behavior of those we tried to help, as things continue to degenerate into the chaos of smaller and smaller factions fighting each other over less and less.

The most dangerous outcome, for Iraq and the region as a whole, is for Arab Iraq to become a zone where there is no rule of law. It’s already most of the way there.

I haven’t checked out the link, but in order for a central government to do any administering, it’s got to have the power to bring the regions to heel if necessary. For instance, the Sunni region would likely not contain any oil. If the Kurds and Shi’ites decide not to share their oil revenues, who’s going to make them do so?

Does Biden’s plan address that?

Yeah, and I’d like to see everyone in the world get a pony. Or I’d like to wiggle my nose and restore Iraq to the way it was in 2002, I forget which.

The Palestinian territory wouldn’t be a matter of concern if Israel weren’t there. Since there’d be no Israel in Iraq, why would that be a problem?

The object is to minimize the extent to which the Arab Iraqis continue to kill each other.

As far as AQ is concerned, who knows? The main thing is to have governments that are strong enough to keep AQ out if they want to. A ‘united’ Iraq which will never be united isn’t likely to be able to do that.

They’re already doing parts of this project on their own. But in a fairly violent manner.

How’s that? If they’re all weak, then the job of each one to protect itself from its weak neighbors shouldn’t be too difficult.

Do you think the Shi’ite majority is ‘honoring’ the ethnic cleansing of west Baghdad by the Sunnis? Hell, no: they simply can’t do anything about it.

Well, how well are things working out now? We’re already neck deep in this mess, and whatever we do, it’s not going to work out well. The question is, what way will work out least horribly.

All I’m hearing here is that Partition Would Be Bad. I agree; see the thread title. I’m not hearing what would work any better.

Yes, things can and WILL get worse, even if we keep on doing exactly as we’re doing.

It’s a matter of under which path things will get a lot worse, versus under which one things willl get a whole lot worse. I’m saying that if Iraq is partitioned, things will get a lot worse, but that’s better than a whole lot worse, which is what will happen if we ‘stay the course.’

Maybe, except for the “benevolent” and “democracy” parts. Admit, won’t you, that’s there’s precious little precedent for such an occurrence?

How so? Oh, they are fighting amongst themselves, but AFAIK no one is attempting to carve out their own little kingdoms, there is no attempt to form a sessionist government in various parts of Iraq (well, ok…maybe the Kurds up north are doing these things), etc etc. Right now they are simply fighting each other, perhaps with the idea of taking the whole shooting match…but more likely just to settle old scores, or due to the endless cycle of violence (Sunni blow up a market, Shi’ia retaliate by executing known Sunni, who retaliate with a car bomb, who retaliate with…etc etc). Can you show some examples of how they are doing part of the job themselves in partitioning Iraq, forming separate governments, etc?

By chance, have you ever looked at the Post-Soviet history in Afghanistan? If so…do you still have this question?

They might not be able to do something about it NOW…do you suppose that, with the US gone, things will remain static?

There aren’t pitched battles in the country side with thousands being killed. Cities aren’t being captured and re-captured by hostile militias, with the inhabitants caught in the middle, there isn’t LARGE scale violence between the various factions…and Iraq, thus far, is at least together, with some sort of government and military at its disposal. One that, while fractured, is at least under some kind of quasi-government control. As opposed to the various militias out there, not to mention the freelance insurgents/terrorists…which would be the norm if we pulled out and things went completely tits up.

I think, horrible as things are, this IS the least bad…for the time being. Civil war…REAL civil war…will be an order of magnitude worse, and there is no guarentee that it will be over with fast. It could take years of grinding civil war before someone emerges strong enough to control a large percentage of Iraq…and gods know what the death toll might be. And attempting to impose an artificial partition on an already exasperated Iraqi population would be like putting a blow torture to an already smoldering fuse…

Dude…if we had the answers we’d be doing it. I’m not sure what the answer is…I know what the answer is NOT though. Imposing an artificial partition is NOT the answer…IMHO. Its a way to make a bad sitution completely out of control (what little control is left).

Personally, I’m leaning toward a larger US presence for the short term, drop the democracy stuff and try and see about forming some kind of coalition government in Iraq, continue to beef up the centralized Iraq military, and attempt to enter into some kind of talks with the less violent insurgent groups…or at least those groups who might be willing to talk and negotiate. Perhaps figure out a way to let them have some kind of stake in the new government. I wish I knew the ‘best’ solution…I don’t. They all look pretty bad. But some are definitely worse than others.

They most likely will if we keep doing what we have been doing the last few years. Maybe the Dems will change that and come up with a better strategy. But…there is worse and then there is worse. Even doing things as we have been, and as bad as that is and will likely get, it would be worse to either cut and run or to attempt to force through an artificial partition plan and stuff it down the Iraqi’s throats.


Damn, but these are dismal threads. We’re reduced to saying to each other, “Your solution would result in unprecedented disaster, while mine merely leads to a hecatomb of semi-Biblical proportions.”

Agree with your post. And to further the point, I thought the main objection to a complete partition was that the Kurds from Turkey would likely want to join with the Kurds from Iraq; thereby sending Turkey into civil war. I thought that was Turkey’s main concern with the Iraq war and hence their unwillingness to support the invasion. It seems it would be better to have a stable Turkey and a civil war in Iraq than to have civil wars in both.

Additionally, in all of the recent partitioning along ethnic lines, were there any that had valuable natural resources localized in one section? Has there been precendent?

Surely a partition of Iraq would have to include sharing of the oil fields in order to be successful. Could a partition have teeth enough to discourage a split in Turkey? Seems unlikely.