By Brian Bresnahan
After the idea was originally aired in the middle of December, a proposed plan to turn Iraq into an enclave of three loosely associated states, divided along sectarian lines, under a very weak central government surfaced again last week.
From an historical perspective, the plan has some merit. It could possibly correct a mistake made by the British in 1921.
In the post-Ottoman era, roughly the end of World War I, Britain and France held power in the Middle East, with Britain having control over the area which now includes Iraq. In 1921 the British carved up this area, establishing states and borders reflective of their own economic, strategic and political interests. Little or no regard was given to the influence and divisions among tribes, clans, ethnicities, religions, or previous provincial boundaries which had unfolded during the Ottoman era or were in place even before that.
Ignored in this process were the Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds who had been roughly divided by three geographically separate provinces: Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul. These areas/divisions we still see today in southern Iraq which is primarily Shiite, the Sunni areas surrounding Baghdad west into the Al Anbar province, and predominantly Kurdish areas of northern Iraq.
The flawed British plan which created modern day Iraq essentially forced these three diverse groups into one nation, not for reasons of their own choosing, but because of imperial rule. The proposal to create three autonomous, yet loosely affiliated provinces as a new Iraq, might very well remedy this error.
The plan is also in line with the Iraqi constitution. As it’s currently drafted, the constitution allows for a certain amount of autonomy for each province. This could permit the plan to move forward without starting the entire democratic process over.
But, there are downsides to such a plan which demand discussion, as they would be significant stumbling blocks to such a proposal.
One antecedent of the Sunni insurgency is the fact that the constitution allows for the very autonomy discussed above. The concern of the Sunnis is the lack of oil resources in their areas; resources necessary to sustain themselves under a relatively loose collection of self-directed entities. The current plans provide for the oil wealth to be shared amongst all provinces, but the Sunnis are violently skeptical the others will share it. They distrust the Shiites and Kurds who have the oil in their territories. The “new” plan for three separate provinces also contains provisions to share the wealth. But there is absolutely no reason why its premise would be better than the current one. Thus, the Sunni insurgency is just as likely to conduct violent opposition to the new plan as the old because this grievance would still not be addressed.
The proposal also ignores the influence of Turkey and Iran with respect to the Kurds, specifically the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK. Both Turkey and Iran, especially Turkey, are absolutely opposed to the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish state. A long history of violent conflict with the PKK and oppression of the Kurdish people by the two states underlies deep-seeded hatred and animosity between them. Any move which would grant the Kurds anything that even resembled their own state would bring action by Turkey, and likely Iran as well.
Turkey and Iran have a policy and history of military action against the Kurds and PKK. Recent actions show they intend to continue that policy. In the last couple weeks, Iran (who clearly has its hands in Iraq) has bombarded parts of northern Iraq in pursuit of PKK rebels. The BBC has also reported that both countries are placing more and more of their own troops along the border in the event Iraq destabilizes and the Kurds attempt to form their own state. Implementation of a “three state plan” granting increased self-rule or sovereignty to the Kurds runs an extremely high risk of open and direct intervention by Turkey and Iran. This would give us bigger headaches than we think we already have in Iraq.
Lastly, is it what the Iraqi’s want? Some might. We know the Kurds have had hopes for their own country. But their political maneuvering in the new Iraqi government suggests they also understand the need to balance between membership in an all-inclusive Iraq and being an independent target of Turkey and Iran. Beyond that, there’s been no indication by the Iraqi people of wanting this type of system. In fact, the Sunni insurgency has been fighting, in part, against it.
Ultimately, the plan may be worthy of proposing to the Iraqi’s. But, we have to remember it’s up to them to choose if it’s worth consideration or discussion. If so, let them debate it. Let them decide.
After decades of dominance by outsiders and tyrannical leaders, the Iraqi people are finally on a road to freedom and democracy, with the international community acknowledging the fact that it’s their country. To that end, the more we can let them determine their own future and let them choose their own paths, the higher the chance of success for them and everyone else with a stake in Iraq.