As Iraq continues to slide into civil war, there is certainly a crying need for fresh thinking. Though he finally admits sending a few “wrong signals” with his Iraq policy, President Bush still calls for staying the course. Not every alternative suggestion, however, is a good one.

The latest bad idea is the “Bosnification” of Iraq.

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Leslie Gelb of the Council on Foreign Relations have been shopping around the division of Bosnia into ethnic federations as a happy precedent for Iraq. They say national unity in Iraq can be achieved by giving each major ethno-religious group an autonomous region, while maintaining Baghdad as a “federal zone” for the central government. The Bosnian precedent, however, is not applicable and is a dangerous idea for Iraq.

Crucially, in the Bosnian case, U.S. intervention followed massive communal violence, helping to quell it, and did not precipitate it, as in Iraq. Biden and Gelb suggest that theirs is an “alternative” to the failing policies in Iraq. Actually, their idea closely mirrors the Bush administration’s approach of organizing politics around sectarian-ethnic identities to fill the vacuum after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

Certainly, communal tensions have always existed in Iraq to some degree. Before the U.S. invasion, a largely Sunni Arab elite held disproportionate power. But it was primarily the policies of the U.S.-British Coalition Provisional Authority that transformed ethno-religious identities into fully political ones.

After the U.S. invasion, many Iraqi professional groups, syndicates and secular parties began mobilizing, but were purposely excluded from the political process. The United States favored those formerly exiled parties that had supported the war, including those that were overtly sectarian. The United State could have emphasized citizenship and individual rights, rather than seeing Iraq only through this sectarian lens. Instead, U.S. policies encouraged the secular to become sectarian so as to be included in the emerging political system.

Paul Bremer, the CPA administrator, made a crucial mistake when he used communal affiliation as the organizing principle for allocating seats on the Iraqi Governing Council, the first body created by the United States to be its “Iraqi face.” Bremer went so far as to classify the head of the Iraqi Communist Party as a Shiite, and not a secular Marxist, to maintain the body’s sectarian “balance.” When I visited Baghdad in July 2003, many Iraqis expressed anger at this turn away from secularism. Even the ubiquitous term “Sunni triangle” is a concept invented by the United States — it did not exist in Iraqi parlance until after 2003.

While some Shiite groups in Iraq are supportive of greater regional autonomy, many are suspicious that such plans will break apart the country to the ultimate advantage of U.S. interests. Some, like the followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, are entirely opposed to federalism. The same can be said of the great majority of Sunni Arab groups. Most Iraqis fear that establishing three autonomous regions would merely institutionalize a breakup of Iraq into three separate countries. Independence for the Kurdish north makes some sense, but even those areas are home to significant ethnic and religious minorities. Aside from grave repercussions on the regional level, following the Bosnia model would accelerate and encourage a massive population exchange, likely devolving into bloody ethnic cleansing.

Many areas in Iraq are mixed. Baghdad, for example, has more than 300,000 Kurds. In my own neighborhood — my family is Christian — the family across the street was Shiite, and Sunni family lived next to them. Rather than ameliorating the chaos, the Biden-Gelb plan would corroborate what many Iraqis and Arabs already suspect — that the United States invaded Iraq to break it up into weak states, two of which, the Kurdish north and the mostly Shiite south, would be oil-rich and beholden to Washington.

Preventing a disastrous breakup of Iraq cannot be achieved by carving out autonomous federations; this would only sanctify an eventual split. Instead, Iraq needs the exact opposite: unity based on full sovereignty. A first step would be to listen to what Iraqis themselves have to say and set a date for an imminent U.S. withdrawal.

Most important, the United States must declare that it does not intend to keep military bases in Iraq. The Biden-Gelb plan is just another Washington-based fantasy that would translate into a nightmare whose primary victims, yet again, would be Iraqi.

How to cite this article:

Sinan Antoon "National Unity in Iraq — As One Government or Three?," Middle East Report Online, June 26, 2006.

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